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DISD Teaches Homeless Students

By Bill Zeeble, KERA News

Dallas, TX – Homeless students face huge challenges. But in one Dallas school, where half the students are homeless, teachers AND pupils are overcoming the odds. KERA's Bill Zeeble reports from Arlington Park Learning Center, a "recognized" DISD school, which is just one step away from the top grade of "exemplary."

Zeeble: This summer, single mother Angela Arnold moved to Dallas from Davidson, North Carolina with her 9 year old son Jordan. She expected to find a job quickly, so she rented a room for the week in an extended-stay motel. That was 6 months ago. When she enrolled Jordan in her neighborhood school, Arlington Park Learning Center's counselor told her she was considered homeless.

Angela Arnold: I'm, like, homeless? What do you mean homeless? I'm not homeless. And, like I said, I've never been put in a situation such as this. He said, well it's a homeless program you're in cause you don't have a permanent address, you don't have a residency. I thought "Wow, ok."

Arnold's still looking for work while stretching an unemployment check. She got laid off from her mortgage- lending job and 20 years banking experience. The decision to leave North Carolina was tough.

Arnold: I had begun this journey after praying. I had prayed because I wanted a new environment and a new start, and it was Texas and I fought the decision for so long.

Arnold is one of more than a hundred parents with kids considered homeless at Arlington Park. The small school of 246 students sits near Stemmons Freeway & Parkland Hospital, surrounded by tiny middle-class homes. Close to this Pre-K through 5th grade school is a women's shelter and a stable of extended-stay hotels with small kitchens. The renting population grew after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the number of displaced families who rent by the week has kept climbing.

Mark Pierce, DISD Homeless Education: We have a lot of children coming from the hotels and motels out on "35."

Mark Pierce runs DISD's homeless education program, including the one at Arlington Park.

Pierce: So we have a lot of kids there. Every single day we get new kids from the hotels and motels.

Pierce says DISD has at least 5,000 homeless students and probably a lot more. Families become homeless for a number of reasons.

Pierce: A family living with another family, because they've been evicted, because they're fleeing from domestic violence, because they just weren't able to afford their housing anymore, & just gave it up and moved in with somebody, they're homeless.

Pierce says most homeless families are headed by single mothers. Some live in cars or area shelters. Angela Arnold's grateful for the help she receives.

Arnold: Arnold: If it wasn't for the program they have here, with the clothes, the uniforms they provide, the book bags, because all our things are in storage

DISD's homeless program provides free weekend snacks for kids, and school transportation to and from the hotels, motels, and shelters. It helps parents too, offering free DART so they can find or keep a job. At Arlington Park, there's an after-school program and a free summer camp. Most students qualify for free and reduced breakfast and lunch, based on family income. Arnold's 4th grade son Jordan just flat-out likes the school, but he'd rather not be living in a hotel.

Jordan Arnold: I wish we were going to have a house to go in. I like Texas better because they have more schools. steady art schools. It's kind of good here, because its so, it's so just good to me. It's all good to me in every way. It feels safe. They have all these gates, teachers watching you. And then all the teachers are here to protect you even though they're mean. They just want you to have a good day. That's why they're so hard on you.

Arlington Park's Principal Nikia Smith might use the word "tough," not "mean." She wants these kids to excel, and says homelessness is no excuse for low expectations.

N. Smith: But the expectations for learning are still there. We have some that come to us 2-3 weeks before our big test. Because that space is available, and expectations we'll get them close to the level of proficiency for testing as any of our students who've been here all year is still a very big thing we have to deal with.

Smith says employees at Arlington Park get it, even though teaching homeless children carries many challenges. Busy moms can't always help with homework, or see it gets done, so teachers often insist students finish homework during the after school program. Also, students may not be near any friends, a playground, or have any privacy at a motel or shelter. First-grade teacher Jacqueline Smith says it's a lot different from the 2-parent household she grew up in.

Smith: Here most parents are just trying to survive, just trying to make it. I say bring school supplies. When they don't know where the next meal is coming from for some, where they'll live . The thing for me, when I came here, I needed to adapt, adapting to where I realized I had to go out some time and buy the comb, buy the brush, buy the lotion. Have it in my drawer. They come in and their hair wasn't combed? I had to comb their hair. I had to have wipes, "Go in the bathroom and wash your face." In a way I became mom.

Smith loves it here, says she'll stay at Arlington Park until she retires, because she says, these are like her kids. Counselor Glenn Hughes, who says he raised his 5 children himself, also treats these students like his own.

Hughes: I'm mom and dad to these kids. Whatever they need I'm going to get. If they need underwear I get it for them. If they need shoes, socks I get them. Lot of times, I'll just go out and buy them myself, because they're my children. And they see this and realize it. I'm not just saying the things I say. I'm acting that way too.

Principal Smith says all the efforts have paid off.

N. Smith: We are at recognized. We are two points - I want to be very clear about that - we are two points away from exemplary. Our campus, over the last 3 years, has made great strides. If you were to look at our data, no one would be able to say we couldn't compete with a school north of LBJ. The expectation is same if a student is here or at Highland Park.

Smith says it's not the child's fault a parent is out of work, on drugs or in jail. But that doesn't change anybody's job. At Arlington Park, she says, you will learn. And everyone will defy the odds so kids can shine.

Email Bill Zeeble

Arlington Park Learning Center

DISD's Homeless Education program