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Area schools make sure homeless get an education, funded or not
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

Patty Briones, administrative assistant to the director of special education, also helps out the homeless liaison director. She will go out of her way to drop off vouchers to homeless students and their families on her personal time to make sure they get them.


Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/26/2009 12:01 AM

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It could be 11 o'clock on a Friday night. A family dinner.

Patty Briones always, always has her phone nearby.

The homeless services secretary for Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 is cognizant of the fact that homeless families don't always have working phones or consistent contact information, so she makes herself available 24/7.

"We try to keep in constant contact with them," she said. "Some families move around a lot. You don't want there to be a gap between when they move and when their children are in school."

Briones merely considers it her job, but the families she's touched say she goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Maria Gaeta, a homeless mother of three students in the district, recalls an instance where Briones dropped off meal vouchers for the family. On her own time.

"If you need the help, that woman will find a way," she said. "She's an angel, for a lot of people, not just me."

Briones worked with 157 homeless students in 18,500-student District 300 last year, up from just 99 the year before.

"It was a big increase," she said. "Next year, I think we'll have at least as many, maybe even more."

As the unemployment rate soars across the country, so too does the number of children without a home.

A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report released this month found the country's homeless population is shifting to include more families. The number of families who stayed in homeless shelters or transitional housing rose by 9 percent from 2007 to 2008. Roughly 40 percent of those families are living in suburban and rural communities.

Like District 300, school districts across the Northwest suburbs are finding themselves in a bind - legally obligated to provide for more homeless students than ever before, yet with little additional manpower or resources.

With the economy still in the tank, and social service agencies and district budgets facing severe cuts, a difficult school year lies ahead for many.

Obligated to serve

By law, a homeless child is one who lacks an adequate, permanent home of his or her own; lives in motels, trailer parks, shelters, cars, campgrounds or on the streets; shares the home of others by economic necessity; and shuffles from one place to another.

Elgin Area School District U-46 saw its number of homeless students nearly double from 2007-08 to 2008-09, from 340 to 601, roughly 11/2 percent of the district's 41,000 students. Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, a 14,000-student district that educated just 16 homeless students in 2007-08, saw its numbers quadruple to 64 last year.

Maggie Dempsey, homeless liaison for U-46, says the drastic increase comes from a number of factors, many naturally tied to the economy.

"No situation is cut and dried," she said. "On top of foreclosures and evictions, we've seen a lot of families move in with relatives because of disasters this year. We've had a lot of students become homeless after house fires, flooding."

The reasons matter little.

Under the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are obligated to identify and provide for homeless students who live within their attendance zones. Along with providing subsidized meals, districts must waive fees and arrange transportation to and from students' original schools, even if they have since moved outside district boundaries.

The law provides children some constancy amid periods of upheaval.

For districts, it's costly.

Federal funds don't cover every expense of schools' homeless programs. The state traditionally provides little - if any - additional money.

Last year, District 300 spent $37,980 on transporting homeless students. Nearly $29,000 was on taxis alone.

"It becomes a district cost," said Laura Frankiewicz, longtime homeless liaison for District 300. "A tremendous cost."

Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 Assistant Superintendent Linda Knicker says her district has some students traveling in from Chicago by cab.

"There is always an element of frustration for people that look at a school district and you look at some outrageous expenses for transportation. But we try really hard to find the most reasonable, solid, supportive situation for their students," Knicker said.

Many hats

All districts are legally required to have a homeless liaison on staff. But budget constraints prohibit a majority from paying someone to work full time in that capacity.

"Many liaisons also work in special education, or special services," said Deb Dempsey, the lead homeless liaison for Kane County. "... Wearing all those hats can make things difficult."

So, likely, will cuts to state social service agencies that provide help to students outside school hours.

"That definitely translates to the children and the stress that they feel in school, and then school staff are more hard-pressed to help these stressed families," Frankiewicz said.

"I think we find the state of Illinois offers meager services at best. To think that they're going to be impacted by (cuts), there's just so many possible impacts it's frightening."

In the face of such challenges, officials say there is only one thing they can do: put their best foot forward.

"Our biggest challenge next year will be to provide to all in an economy where money is tight. To try not to decrease services. To keep our service model as strong as it's been," Knicker said. "We're looking at every single way to cut expenses that doesn't impact student learning."

Homeless students
District 2007-08 2008-=09 Increase
Elgin U-46 340 601 77%
West Aurora 129 81 166 105%
Comm. District 300 99 157 59%
Schaumburg Twp. 54 16 64 300%
Indian Prairie 204 40 60 50%
Naperville 203 40 50 25%
St. Charles 303 29 45 55%
NW Suburban High School 214 5 30 500%
Lake Villa 41 *
Lake Zurich 95 *
* School district would not provide records

 Homeless by county
County 2006 2007 2008 Change
Cook 11,575 11,567 13,283 15%
Kane 482 446 709 47%
DuPage 269 327 470 75%
Lake 239 302 427 79%
McHenry 41 79 171 317%
Total 12,406 12,721 15,060 19%
2009 figures won't be available until September
Source: Illinois State Board of Educatin