The Massachusetts Department of Education estimates there are as many as 50,000 homeless children enrolled in public schools around the state. And that number is increasing as the state's homeless family population continues to rise this year.
The average age of a homeless child is eight. During times of transition, it's common for students' grades to falter. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov looks at a program designed to help homeless school children cope with their situations and succeed in school.
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MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: A family homeless shelter is a chaotic place.
BRADY-MYEROV: Common rooms are shared by kids of all ages and each family is typically given only one room for private space. It's not easy for school kids to do their homework in this atmosphere. There's where the School on Wheels comes in. The organization finds space in a shelter to make a homework center and pair school kids with volunteer tutors for one on one help.
LEON LITCHFIELD: Does that make sense what we wrote down there?
DIYA GONSALVEZ: Which one?
BRADY-MYEROV: Leon Litchfield is helping 13-year-old Diya Gonsalvez with math. She moved into the Evelyn House Shelter in Stoughton almost a year ago. In a quiet voice, she says she was getting s because of how she was feeling.
GONSALVEZ: Yeah, 'cause I was sad, so I didn't care and then I got used to it.
BRADY-MYEROV: Now that's she's gotten used to living in a shelter, she is an honor roll student. Gonsalves is one of many kids School on Wheels Massachusetts founder and executive Director Cheryl Opper says are invisible.
CHERYL OPPER: I really feel like they are invisible children in our society and in our classroom. Nobody knows when you walk into a school which children are going home on a bus to sleep at a shelter and which children are going home to their house.
BRADY-MYEROV: State law requires the school district do everything possible to help a homeless child remain in a school, even if they are placed in a shelter far from the district. But the reality, says Opper, is that kids are moving schools on average two times a year, and statistics show it takes four to six months to catch up.
CHERYL OPPER: You have these huge chunks of layers of learning that are missing. So, if you never learned multiplication, how can you do division? Our goal is to fill in those gaps, to shrink those gaps in education and provide the highest education possible for them.
BRADY-MYEROV: Opper personally attends many parent teacher meetings with shelter families. Her non-profit is funded by donations and serves six shelters in Brockton, Middleboro, Peabody, and Stoughton. It also helps the growing number of families living in hotels and motels because the shelter system is full. What seems to impress the kids the most about the program is the free backpacks.
MARIE: I got a big back pack for my grade, which is 9th, and they put everything I needed for that grade in there.
BRADY-MYEROV: Marie, who didn't want to use her real name, says getting a new backpack helped ease her transition to a shelter and high school.
MARIE: It was a really big step from Middle School to high school and all this other change happening at the same time.
BRADY-MYEROV: The new backpacks are stuffed and stored in Cheryl Opper's basement in her North Easton home, the headquarters for School on Wheels. Volunteers from area schools fill the packs with new pencils, scissors and calculators.
[Sound of people preparing backpacks]
KELSEY HYDER & CHERYL OPPER: I'm looking for a high school girl I don't know if I'm looking for high school girl that's always tricky because we don't know if they are a pink kind of girl.
BRADY-MYEROV: On this day Brian Bolea and Kelsey Hyder, who are both 15 year old, are filling backpacks. They also deliver the packs to the shelter and meet the kids.
HYDER: At first I was a little bit worried about how I was going to talk to them and stuff but like they are just normal kids and it's just their setting is different than ours.
BRIAN BOLEA: Me and Kelsey we told them they can call us at any time, so.
BRADY-MYEROV: Opper says it's builds homeless students' self esteem and confidence to have a new backpack and supplies. And if they need special items for a science project during the year, School on Wheels will provide it. The program was a huge relief to Cletie Emile who moved into transition housing in Brockton with two school-aged daughters and no supplies. Emile, a Haitian immigrant, relies on the tutoring.
CLETIE EMILE: Sometimes we don't have time to help them with their homework when we know the tutor is coming, just save the homework. I say 'Wait, your tutor is going to check it.' Especially, with me, English is my second language.
BRADY-MYEROV: Her two girls, Jazzy and Bianca, crowd around Cheryl Opper when she visits.
[Sound of Opper chatting with Jazzy and Bianca]
OPPER: OK, your favorite food?
BIANCA: My favorite food starts with an 's.'
BRADY-MYEROV: The School on Wheels is four years old and getting too bid for Opper's basement. Just like the number of homeless children is growing, she wants the program to grow along with them.
OPPER: Does anybody know how to spell spaghetti?
BIANCA OR JAZZY: I'll try.
OPPER: You'll try. I like that.
BIANCA OR JAZZY: S-p-a-g-e-t-t-i.
BRADY-MYEROV: For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.
This program aired on October 15, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.