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Homeless children need more attention

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on July 12, 2013)

In my previous column, I alluded to the challenges faced by children who are homeless or economically and socially disadvantaged. Indeed, homelessness among children presents one of the greatest challenges facing society today.

In 1980, there were very few homeless children and mothers. Today, sadly, they make up some 40 percent of the homeless population. In 2010-11, the number of homeless children enrolled in school exceeded 1 million for the first time. In Tennessee, nearly 20,000 children experienced homelessness. That is not a small number.

Educational researchers have long believed these children suffer educationally. This seems like only common sense! Not surprisingly, studies show homelessness and high mobility lead to lower school attendance, increased likelihood of repeating grades and higher dropout rates. Consequently, reading and math achievement fall off.

My colleague, Peabody Associate Dean Joseph F. Murphy, says homeless students “are our nation’s children most at risk.”

In a book Murphy co-authored with Peabody alumna Kerri Tobin, “Homelessness Comes to School” (2011), he points to the damaging effects homelessness has on children. As their living conditions deteriorate, children are more likely to have medical problems that go without care, to suffer malnutrition, to become socially isolated and to miss the support of parents. They can become targets of crime and even physically harmed. Is it any wonder that their achievement suffers?

“Homelessness is a scourge on humanity,” says Murphy, “and it will take all of society to change it.” What can schools do? Of course, these children need to be fed, provided school supplies and helped with their personal hygiene and health. That goes without saying. In addition, schools should educate staff on the challenges facing homeless children, their needs and the legal protections available to them.

Schools might consider providing these children with more individualized instruction, partial-credit and credit-recovery programs, and deadlines that take into account the transient nature of their shelter arrangements, for example, by assignments that can be completed on the same day. Lessons that develop life skills and social skills, and extracurricular activities that foster interactions with their fellow students, may be especially beneficial as homelessness increases the likelihood of peer rejection.

Most important, schools need to create supportive environments in which students feel safe and sense stability. They need a safe place, a sanctuary. And, don’t forget the parents. Educate them! Help them become good advocates for their children even as they struggle to just survive.

As Nashville grows, let’s not forget our fellow citizens who need the support of government, schools and social agencies to get by, let alone thrive. Every child, after all, deserves a chance to succeed in life regardless of where they hail from.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.