Homeless, but Finding Sanctuary at School
Class size. Florida voters have twice approved mandatory class-size limits, despite strong opposition from one of the most prominent members of the so-called school-reform movement, former Gov. Jeb Bush. The three Collins girls' classes have 18 students each.
Talented, experienced teachers. Brianna's teacher, Rebecca Farmer, is a 14-year veteran. Shannon Preshong, who teaches Tamara, has 19 years of experience, and Ms. Schreffler has spent 30 years in the classroom.
Firm yet caring discipline. Even before students bound off that rollicking school bus, Shanita Highland, the dean of students, bounds on. There is immediate silence. "You're supposed to have your shirt tucked in," whispered Justin Hernandez, a fifth grader who quickly stuffed his into his pants. "No one likes getting on Mrs. Highland's bad side --she's nice, but she's strict."
Ohanian Comment: If you can read this without anger and tears, check your pulse to make sure you're still alive. But in addition to being the Outrage of the Day, it's also "Good News." We can be grateful that Mike Winerip tells things that need to be telling. We can be grateful that there's a principal in Orlando who works at getting books into the hands of homeless children. My check is in the mail to his school. I hope yours will be too. Getting books to children is how we spread good news.
Note how Winerip positions the fact of the highest Down Jones average in three years with a rising number of homeless children. Can you imagine a school where 20% of the children are homeless? 71% of the students in the school are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
How much do you suppose it costs to take a family to Disney World? I wonder if, as they ride their bus to see Mickey Mouse, they realize they are passing by children in homeless shelters. NOTE: A season ticked for the Orlando Magic VIP row is $62573.00.
Very significant is the fact that the school featured below finds a way to make sure homeless children get books of their own. This shows an optimism and a pedagogy to be admired.
Also note that there are experienced teachers in this school. Note the small class size. Bill Gates says neither of these things matter.
I'm sending a cash donation to Patrick Galatowitsch--as a contribution towards the school's next literacy night. I like his belief in the importance of getting books into the hands of homeless children. I like the fact that he doesn't believe in suspending students. Should you wish to do the same, here's the address:
Fern Creek Elementary School
1121 North Ferncreek Avenue
Orlando, Florida 32803
Send the cost of one paperback book. It's called lighting a candle--instead of cursing the darkness. Actually, I strongly believe in doing both. Do not go silent into that good night. Go loudly screaming . . . and with a hand out to help others.
I e-mailed Patrick Galatowitsch and he answered immediately, asking that checks be made out to Fern Creek Elementary along with a note or letter stating that the donation is for books for children who are homeless.
He adds: "I will make it happen!"
By Michael Winerip
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The bus ride from the homeless shelter to Fern Creek Elementary School was, as usual, raucous. A hundred times, Doretha Brown, the bus driver, had to yell for everyone to sit down. "This noise is what holds us up every morning and evening!" Ms. Brown shouted, although the Collins girls -- Brianna, 8; Tamara, 7; and Sydney, 6 -- could barely hear her above the din.
Tamara working on her reading with Deborah Smith. About 20 percent of the students at Fern Creek, including the Collinses, live in homeless shelters.
A first grader and a second grader got into a fight on the 15-minute ride, and someone else threw up. Brianna, Tamara and Sydney paid no mind. As their father, James Collins, says,"To get by at a shelter, you have to focus yourself."
This is the sisters' second stay at a shelter, so they are becoming accustomed to being homeless. Roxanne Schreffler, a kindergarten teacher, was struck by Sydney's arrival at Fern Creek in February. "She walked into kindergarten in the middle of the day and sat right down," Ms. Schreffler said. "She'd immediately adapted to her new situation. There was no time integrating her into the class; she was ready to go."
Twenty percent of Fern Creek's students are homeless, and school is the best part of the day for many of them. All eight members of the Collins family -- Brianna is the oldest of six children, including three who are too young for school -- live in a 13-foot-by-15-foot windowless room and share three bunk beds. It is a great relief getting out in the morning and off to school.
"They love Fern Creek," said their father, who lost his job hanging drywall after the economy collapsed. "I can't say nothing bad about Fern Creek."
The children's mother, Felica Blue, who lost her job working the 11 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift cleaning the arena after the Orlando Magic's basketball games, said: "They love Fern Creek. Brianna's always talking about kids from her class."
Ms. Schreffler is struck by how happy Sydney is despite her circumstances. "She's so grateful. It seems like everything is, 'Thank you, Ms. Schreffler,'" she said.
The girls were particularly excited on the day of the school's annual literacy night and book fair. Every month, Patrick Galatowitsch, the principal, dedicates a "night" for learning -- math, science, the arts, music --but this was the first for Ms. Blue and her girls. Mr. Galatowitsch sends a bus to the shelter to pick up the families, and the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, which runs the shelter, keeps their dinners warm until they get back.
Mr. Collins gave the three girls all his spare change to spend at the book fair. Tamara kept her 53 cents in a sealed envelope. When someone told her that was not enough for a book, Tamara said, "It's enough for a bookmark."
On Thursday, the day that the Dow hit its highest level in nearly three years, 256 of the 751 at the coalition's shelter were children. There are 2,953 homeless students attending Orange County Public Schools, up from 1,463 in 2008.
Nationally, the number of homeless students at public schools reached an all-time high after the recession hit. In the 2008-9 school year, there were 954,914 homeless students, compared with 679,724 in 2006-7, according to the latest data from the United States Department of Education.
Homeless children fare significantly worse in school than other poor children. In Virginia, 21.2 percent of students who are homeless at some point during their high school years drop out, compared with 14.8 percent of all poor children, the state's Department of Education says. In Colorado, the high school graduation rate is 72 percent for all students, 59 percent for poor students and 48 percent for homeless students, according to data from the state's education Web site.
At Fern Creek, where 85 percent of the students qualify for subsidized lunches, about one-third of the 59 homeless students, including Brianna, have been held back a grade.
Even so, the school has had an A rating on its state report card in five of the last six years, with 77 percent of the students scoring proficient in reading and 85 percent doing so in math.
Mr. Galatowitsch says there are several reasons for the school's success:
The second person they meet, standing in front of the school, is Ron Jones, a tall, athletic gym teacher, who holds three fingers in the air, the Fern Creek signal for everyone to button it. "We've told them what being quiet looks like and sounds like," Mr. Jones says.
Mr. Galatowitsch does not believe in suspending children. "It makes no sense to remove a child who needs school the most," he said. This year, no Fern Creek student has been suspended, although 18 have been sent to the quiet room to cool off.
On literacy night, the school bus arrived at the shelter at 5:20. Only two mothers and six children got on. All together, about 150 parents and children attended. There was a storyteller from the Orange County Library System, a book giveaway and the book fair. Mr. Galatowitsch used a $250 donation to buy books for the homeless students. The Collinses returned to the shelter with four each, which pleased Tamara, who did not need to spend her 53 cents.
At the end of the evening, a raffle was held in the cafeteria. A number of prizes were awarded, but the most coveted by far were the four bicycles that had been donated by a local church.
When it came down to the last bike, Mr. Galatowitsch, who has been a principal 16 years and makes $91,674 a year, called out ticket No. 9083. Brianna leapt into the air: she had won a black bike and matching helmet. "Plus I get this," she said, holding up a lock.
Tamara stood quietly to the side. "I didn't get a bicycle," she said to her mother.
When it was time to leave, a grown-up carried the new bicycle onto the school bus. For once in a very hard life, heading home to the shelter, Brianna Collins felt like a movie star.
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