The 5 Percent

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Last week, the Lowell School Committee and anyone who was listening to the School Committee’s meeting heard the LPS McKinney-Vento report. The report enumerates homeless students in the Lowell Public Schools as defined by McKinney-Vento act:

The McKinney-Vento act defines homeless students as students who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason.

– March 1, 2019 Report to Lowell School Committee

As of March 1, that number in Lowell was 982 – and actually climbed a bit from there due to students displaced by two fires in the City. The reported number of homeless children, however, represents 5 percent of Lowell Public Schools’ students.

This is a heart-breaking situation, and it is one that I, a former teacher, was aware of when I was a teacher. Nearly every year in which I taught, I had one – and sometimes more – students who were identified as homeless. They lived in shelters, they lived temporarily with a neighbor or relatives, and yes, some of them were living in a vehicle until their situation was discovered by Social Workers.

This brings me to the point of writing this entry: in our public schools, we rely on Social Workers, Counselors, and Health professionals to help us not only to identify which students and families are in trauma, but to help mitigate the circumstances in which they find themselves. In our public schools, with 5 percent of a given student population in crisis due to housing uncertainty, that is a massive responsibility for which there are some, but not many solutions.

Lowell’s McKinney-Vento report sparked a lot of conversations, as well as people asking “what can we do”? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know our school social workers, with caseloads stretched beyond reasonableness, are a key response to students and families living the trauma of becoming homeless.

With burgeoning caseloads, our schools need more professional, trained school counselors, social workers, and wrap-around services to support the homeless in our midst. That, of course, takes a monetary investment.

You may have heard me state that the outdated Foundation Budget calculations, now over 25 years old, are shortchanging Lowell Public Schools by $42 million each year. That is not just a guess on my part, but an estimate based on real numbers that come from Mass. Budget & Policy Center. School funding is a crisis for which the solution – fully funding schools by updating ridiculously outdated funding forumulae – should be a priority.

Our community’s children cannot wait.

In the dark of winter…

There is a pall hanging over us. We want answers to the unanswerable. We need to put our anger and sadness  somewhere, but there is no place.

Tomorrow is a Monday that will be unlike any other. Tomorrow I need to try to reassure my 8-year-olds. Many of them will have watched too many reports on television, or overheard snippets of adult conversation.  While some of my students live with traumas, nothing like this has ever happened before. I pray that nothing close to it ever happens again.

I have no idea what I can say, except to reassure them that, while sometimes the adults in their lives have been unreliable, I am here to keep them safe.  As a teacher, I imagine that is exactly what passed through the minds of the teachers and administrators of Sandy Hook as they made split second decisions to shelter their own students. Six times that instinct to protect children from harm resulted in the ultimate sacrifice.

We will need to be together.

Where dreams intersect

Several years ago, my husband Adrien was working in the corporate world as a software engineer.  For a long time, he had worked for large and small software companies and enjoyed both the work and the camaraderie…. and the pay wasn’t bad either.

But some time about five years ago, he had a moment when staying with his engineering job was overshadowed by the desire to do something more creative, to return to his early interest in photography. And so he did. It has been an exciting journey of hard work and worry and determination.

This past summer, he connected with the staff at UTEC with a proposal and a hope that he could explore creating portraits and a film documenting the UTEC program’s young people.

Capturing the hope and resilient spirit of youth who have had some tough breaks, but who are determined to break out of cycles of trauma generated from varied socio-economic factors, has been a journey of enlightenment. While we both were aware of UTEC’s existence, I don’t believe either of us knew the depth of this program’s impact.

These young people also have dreams and goals. How eloquent they are in the expression of where they have been and where they are going! I want my own elementary-age students – the ones who could easily take a misstep – to listen, to learn from you.

Serendipity has put these young people, so determined to overcome challenges, and Adrien, determined to tap into something more,  in each other’s pathways.

It is the place where dreams intersect.

To see the images and the film, click on the following links:

UTEC Portraits

Video “Chipping Away”



Standing up for what is important

It was at the end of our school day yesterday when one of my students matter-of-factly asked if I had heard about “the shooting”. Knowing about the violent incident this past weekend on a street near my elementary school, I waited for her to continue. Which she did. As if it weren’t something out of the ordinary, this 8-year-old described how her mother brought my students and her sibling to an upstairs bedroom where they would be safe from further gunfire. And this revelation led another student to share that he lived on the next street and also  heard gunshots.

Can I just be on the record that no 8-year-old should have to deal with this?

A few years ago, one of my students was nearly hit when a stray bullet went through the front window of her family’s apartment on the same street. When I asked what she did next, she told me she just got on the floor. Simple as that as if a bullet going through the front window was not that unusual.

So yesterday, when I heard about a walk, a community response event sponsored by several city neighborhood groups and UTEC (United Teen Equality Center), I felt the need to walk in support of my students, many of whom are exposed to violence and trauma in ways that are normally quite easy to shut out.

As the walkers traveled from City Hall in silence, I realized how easy it is to detach from the violence my own students deal with. This simple act, made it real – as one speaker said, tonight we would not be driving by, we would stop and reflect on the recent city violence.

I don’t have many answers for my students; they live in an environment that I, a product of white, middle-class upbringing, can hardly begin to imagine.

Eight-year-old or eighty-eight years old, violence is never an answer. Walking with those whose lives are highly impacted by such events made turning away impossible.

Faces of poverty and trauma

This time of year – this time of year when commercial excess is encouraged and expected. A time when non-stop advertisement reminds us that in order for it to truly be the “most wonderful time” of the year, we need to open those wallets and warm up the charge cards. This time of year is filled with sadness and lost hope.

It is a time of year that is filled with resentment and sometimes anger for some of my students. It is a time when life is just not fair.

I can generally gauge the economy by the numbers of children in my classroom who seem hungry. This year, there’s not much guesswork or hypothesis involved. They don’t just seem hungry, they clearly are hungry.

While these students are generally beneath the radar – free and reduced lunch status is not commonly known among teaching staff – there is no hot list of who pays for lunch and who doesn’t. This year, on several occasions, I have been struck by the matter-of-fact, almost accepting manner of parents who have run out of money and who are falling through the social safety net. And who, in desperation, approach me – the teacher of their child – to see if I have any resources they can tap in to.

If this year is any indication, the economy is really bad.

For these children living in poverty, there is no “most wonderful time of the year”. There is only the reality that there will be nothing under the tree – in fact, there won’t be a tree.

In the last week, I have had children acting out and then melting in to tears because they are hungry (I ask now, no sense in hinting around). For several children, whenever a classmate is absent, we tuck the extra bagel, or cereal or graham cracker package into their backpacks.

My mother knits mittens for my students – I have given out every pair, about 10 so far this year. One child came to school so cold he needed to keep his winter coat on (a gift from a generous school benefactor) for more than an hour to ward of the shivers.

These are not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps families that some disparage. They were the working poor, have seen their jobs disappear, and now watch helplessly as their family begins a descent through the cracks in our safety net.

And the children? These are children for whom the “most wonderful time of the year” is a cruel joke.