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DISD Addresses Needs of Transient Students

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 reporter

DISD Addresses Needs of Transient Students

Dallas, TX –

Catherine Cuellar, 90.1 reporter: The weekend dawns quietly in the schoolyard just across the street from Old City Park. But by 8:30 a.m., the building buzzes with about 50 students.

Cuellar: Kids start their Saturday in the cafeteria with a granola bar before splitting up by grade level and subject for tutoring.

Christopher Maurice, Family Gateway resident: My name is Christopher Maurice and I'm 8 years old in the third grade.

Sabrina Rice, Family Gateway resident: My name is Sabrina. I'm 12 years old in the fifth grade.

Cuellar: Siblings Christopher and Sabrina live at Family Gateway, which provides up to 30 families housing for up to 10 weeks. Their brother Dwayne is also enrolled at City Park but doesn't attend Saturday tutoring. Their mother Shante walks them to and from school every day.

Christopher: It takes us 15 to 20 minutes.

Sabrina: I get up at 6:30.

Cuellar: They've been accepted by other school kids. And they consider their current situation a cut above the 500-bed Dallas Life Foundation Shelter where they used to live.

Sabrina: When was I at Dallas Life, Nathan?

Nathan Frazier, Dallas Life resident: You were at Dallas Life just a couple months ago.

Sabrina: The food was garbage, you know. I'm not lying. Right, Nathan?

Nathan: Their enchiladas look weird.

Cuellar: Like Sabrina, Nathan is a 12-year-old fifth grader. He lives at Dallas Life.

Nathan: I go to school. Come home. Do my homework, play with my sisters and go to sleep. I'm not in the after-school program. My oldest sister is 2 and my youngest sister is 2 months. I'm a really big help, my mom says.

Cuellar: On weekdays, City Park provides an after school snack and tutoring until 5 p.m., with district buses transporting students between shelters and campus. On Saturdays, the school offers a half-day of tutoring for kids with low TAKS test scores, and parents must drop students off and pick them up.

Nathan: We take the bus, but today my mom drove me. My mom's gonna pick me up, but my dad, I don't know where he is.

Norma Martinez, Principal, City Park Elementary: Anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of our students are from the shelters.

Cuellar: Norma Martinez is the principal at City Park elementary. She says homeless students are often tardy, which creates academic and disciplinary problems. So, Martinez visits parents in the shelters, and also looks for new students.

Martinez: I have parent meetings at the shelters once a month during the day. If I go to a parent meeting and see a four year old I'll ask the mom, "How old is she?" Please enroll her in school." 'Cause we believe the sooner we get 'em, we get 'em help, the better off they'll be.

Cuellar: The school provides counseling for students and social service referrals for interested families. Parkland Hospital's medical van visits campus once a week. Private donors also provide students what their families can't.

Martinez: And it's not limited to the homeless children. The children do get school supplies, Christmas gifts. One organization provides a field trip per grade level. I would say a good 80 percent of students eat breakfast here. 96 percent of our population is on free and reduced lunch.

Cuellar: After three hours studying math and language arts, students return to the cafeteria, where donated door prizes are awarded as teachers Jasmine Jones and Laurie Gonzalez pass out slices of pizza. About half of Jones' third grade students are homeless.

Jasmine Jones, 3rd grade teacher: Enrollment in my classroom, I've had from a minimum of 12 students to a maximum of 21 at one time. Around Thanksgiving to Christmas time, I think 9 students came in two to three weeks. When we returned back from the holidays, it had dropped down. So altogether from the beginning of the year I've had about 15 students in and out my room.

Cuellar: Gonzalez, a fourth grade teacher, works with the district's homeless education program year-round. She says everyone suffers from high student turnover.

Laurie Gonzalez, 4th grade teacher: A lot of those kids, it's not the first time they've been from one school to another and they know it's just temporary, so sometimes they don't see that they're valuable. They're just here a little bit, just part of the group a little bit. They're going to move on. So I've seen kids, older ones especially, "I'm only going to be here for a little while, so it doesn't really matter." But it does matter because we see that they are missing basic skills that are going to help them along with the other kids.

Cuellar: After lunch, students play outside until family members pick them up. Sabrina and Christopher are waiting on their mom after other kids have left. Mindy Cox, who teaches fifth and sixth grade reading, language arts and social studies, offers a ride.

Mindy Cox, 6th grade teacher: Usually we call the parents. These guys, I've picked up and brought 'em and taken 'em before so I'm just going to take 'em home to Family Gateway. Sabrina, Christopher, y'all come up with me to my room, let me get my stuff.

Cuellar: Just then Shante Rice arrives to escort her kids back to the shelter. She seems embarrassed and doesn't want to talk. But in an earlier conversation, she spoke about the importance of keeping her kids in school.

Shante Rice, Family Place resident: I would, if it was just me, be living on the street. But I have to think about my children. And that's what I'm doing each and every day, thinking about my children and their education.

Cuellar: Rice fled an abusive relationship in Laredo, Texas six months ago. Previously, she worked in a fast food restaurant. She looks for a job and housing while her kids are at school, and celebrates their achievements when they come home.

Rice: My kids' grades are wonderful. I would imagine being in a shelter they would've dropped drastically, but it's like we're fighting to show people we're no different from them so we're trying to keep our education up. We're trying to keep our self up spiritually, mentally, and physically.

Cuellar: Those are the intangible benefits of the DISD homeless education program, which serves more than 1000 students throughout the year. For KERA 90.1, I'm Catherine Cuellar.


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