Madison School District At Record Number Of Homeless Students | Education
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It looks like a record year in the Madison Metropolitan School District, but it's not a record anyone is proud of. The district is on pace to have the most homeless students enrolled in its history.
They roam the hallways of every school in Madison, indistinguishable from any other student. They sit silently trying to concentrate on the lesson of the day, not grasping the one life has dealt.
"I do a lot of work at school so it takes my mind off of it," said student Antonio Ellis.
Ellis is 10 years old. He likes math and dreams of becoming a football player or maybe a wrestler. When the bell rings, the fifth-grader doesn't have a home to go to.
"I sleep here with my own personal cover," he said, pointing to a small bed in the corner of a long, narrow bedroom at the Salvation Army.
Antonio, his three brothers, sister and parents have been living in the family shelter for the past 90 days.
"It's been ups and downs everywhere we've been," said Kewan Slaton, the boy's father. "We stayed in close to abandoned houses, you know."
As the family tried to find stability in Chicago, the boys changes schools at least five times.
"Since she was a newborn we had been jumping around to friends' houses, his mother, family, strangers," said mother Latoya Smith. "It was to a point where we couldn't sleep."
The family found refuge in Madison.
"I'm glad we did choose to move to Madison because you have the best schools out here," said Smith.
Jani Koester runs a program helping identify homeless students when they enroll, and her work over the past 23 years has been nationally recognized.
"I will say I've seen a lot, I don't think I've seen everything," said Koester.
And this year is especially troubling.
"We're at our highest numbers that we've ever had," she said.
So far, 907 students have been identified as homeless, the largest number for this time in the school year.
"Folks are finding it hard to find the grounding that they need to keep finding places to go," said Koester. "Resources are being stretched much thinner than they have been in the past."
The Transition Education Program, or TEP, steps in providing students with resources and handing out basic items like backpacks and clothes on a daily basis. "Just hygiene: shampoo, deodorant, first aid kit," said Koester, showing some of the donations they have on hand at Lowell Elementary School.
Most students have doubled up, meaning they've lost their housing and are living with family, friends, even strangers. Others are living in motels and shelters and at least 16 students have slept in their cars so far this school year.
"Yeah, that's real," said Koester. "That's staying there with all their stuff, with everything they have and trying to stay warm and trying to stay clean."
Homelessness affects a child's ability to learn.
"Every school move a child can lose four to six months of educational progress," said Koester.
It is something Antonio said he has gone through.
"We were doing like a multiplication tree and I really didn't know how to do it. I never was taught how to do that," he said.
And then, there's the emotional impact of simply not knowing.
"Where are we going to stay the night? What's going to happen tomorrow? Will there be supper on the table?" said Koester.
"I did worry because at first I thought it was like, we're going to be here for a long, long time," said Antonio.
Thankfully, that's not the case. With the help of a Salvation Army case worker, the family has secured a duplex in Madison. Packed with a whole lot of resilience, Antonio Ellis' journey has finally led him home.
"I would like people to know that I'm feeling happy," he said, adding that he's finally home.
Koester said this is a community issue and hopes everyone comes together to help these children.
TEP is always looking for donations, especially good, strong backpacks which serve not only for books but also for clothes. Also needed are hygiene supplies and things like alarm clocks. Donations can be dropped off at Lowell Elementary School on Madison's East Side.