The Oregonian has published their annual 2010 Season of Sharing Wishbook. As always, it is a great guide that lifts up organizations working to make a difference in our community under difficult circumstances. This economy makes their work all the more difficult and important this year. I plan to "tweet" one program each day - minus one important example that doesn't belong on the list- and hope that you find ways to support these agencies. What is the wishbook?
The 2010 Season of Sharing Wishbook, The Oregonian's annual holiday fundraising campaign, seeks help for 20 social service agencies that serve individuals and families in Oregon and southwest Washington. Your generosity will fulfill their wishes, which range from sleeping bags for a summer camp where sexually abused children can start healing, to building materials to make home repairs for low-income homeowners, to hotel vouchers for women who've fled domestic abuse. Last year, readers donated nearly $280,000, fulfilling the wishes of all the agencies featured. Since 1990, readers have given more than $4 million. Thank you for your generosity in these difficult economic times.
The agency I would discourage folks from supporting on this list is the Community Transitional School. Not every agency is worth supporting and below the fold I offer my reasons for not recommending support for this one program (a position that I've held for some time). But don't let controversy over this one program stop you from supporting the others. They fill an important need and help transform lives. So please give generously and volunteer year-round if possible.
"Homeless Schools: Separate and Unequal"
The Community Transitional School is a separate school for students experiencing homelessness.
Why are separate schools bad? The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has noted:
"These “schools" are usually located in shelters or churches, and resemble the one-room schoolhouse of early rural America. They typically fail to provide the same curricular and extra-curricular activities as regular public schools; they may not be staffed by certified teachers; they often group children together in multi-age, multi-grade classrooms; they usually fail to provide the same services and resources as regular public schools; and they may violate health and safety codes. Because most separate schools cannot provide the same educational services as are provided in regular public schools, homeless children risk falling behind their peers academically. When these children return to regular public schools, they may not receive credit for their work in a separate school, thus forcing them to repeat a grade or take additional classes in order to graduate."
Barbara Duffield, the policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth and Children, has said:
"No separate school is a model for homeless children. In fact, federal law strictly prohibits school segregation by housing status because separate schools are considered a harmful educational practice. Segregation deprives children of the resources, structure, and stability of a mainstream school environment. Furthermore, we have learned over the years that model homeless education programs are those that keep children stable in their schools of origin, remove barriers to enrollment, attendance, and success, and afford homeless children and youth every opportunity to participate in school activities. We also have learned from those communities who had separate programs and then transitioned to an integrated model; these communities report being able to provide more comprehensive services to more children in an integrated setting."
Educators, civil rights organizations and advocates for children experiencing homelessness have all come to the conclusion that separate schools are ineffective based on study after study that show that children in separate schools suffer and don't, well, learn. The most recent studies, conducted on the well-known homeless-only Pappas School in Phoenix, AZ, compared test scores among students there with students who were homeless that had been mainstreamed into Phoenix's public schools. At every grade level and in every subject the students at the Pappas School scored substantially lower than homeless kids in public schools.
Children's advocate Diane Nilan recently wrote:
The federal government issued clear guidelines to ensure the educational rights of homeless students in 2001, with the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act. In declaring that homeless children can stay in their original schools, Congress acknowledged that social isolation, stigma, unnecessary school disruption, excessive mobility and lack of access to educational and social opportunities would be harmful to students. I'll never say Congress gets it right all the time. But in this case, they significantly raised the bar, removing barriers to education and assuring access to the same education that non-homeless students receive.
Thanks to political pressure, four counties received exemptions from McKinney-Vento's 2001 ban on separate schools, including the Disneyland neighbors paraded in last month's documentary "Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County."
What happens to kids in these separate settings? They do worse. They receive an inferior education. They are isolated from the world around them. They do not have the same opportunities for extracurricular activities. They are easy to ignore. And if/when they graduate, who cares?
McKinney-Vento gives them a level playing field without shuffling them off to a separate school. States report improvements in academic progress of homeless students in mainstream schools. And at the end of the day, a quality education is what will help homeless students avoid poverty and not experience homelessness as adults. To lower our expectations for homeless children is to submit to the worst form of prejudice. Charity is no substitute for justice.
Seems to me that time spent debating separate education could be better spent badgering Congress to increase funding for programs that work — the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program — and reduce myriad reasons families become homeless in the first place. If our economy doesn't improve soon, schools will join the other storefronts with "for rent, for sale" signs hanging from their doorknobs.
As I've said before, the Community Transitional School could play a valuable role if instead of trying to provide the primary education for children - a goal they clearly cannot meet - they instead used their passion, energy and good intentions to provide after school programs and other supportive services that supplement the work being done by public schools.
My position isn't a popular one. People see homeless kids and naturally want to help. As an advocate and as a minister, however, I have a responsibility to the community to say what programs work and what programs cause more harm than good. The Oregonians's 2010 Season of Sharing Wishlist showcases a lot of programs that do a lot of good and one that uses a model proven to be ineffective and even harmful to the educational needs of children.