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Report on Homeless Students Spurs Questions, Dismay

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page PG06

In education circles, the term "disadvantaged" often describes schoolchildren who lack basic resources available to most of their peers. They may come from low-income families. They may be recent immigrants. They may speak little or no English.

Among the students who face the greatest challenges are the homeless. Without stable shelter, these students confront an array of hurdles. For many, getting help with their nightly homework can be the least of their worries.

In Prince George's County, public school officials this year have identified 1,750 homeless students in a system with an enrollment of about 136,000, according to a new report.

That exceeds homeless student totals in several surrounding counties (519 in Montgomery, 261 in Anne Arundel, 180 in Charles, 58 in Calvert), Baltimore City (1,550) and the District (789).

What's more, the homeless student count in Prince George's is rising. Last year the county identified 1,632 such students; in 2003, 1,318. The count jumped by nearly a third in two years.

"I'm just appalled by these numbers," said school board member Abby L.W. Crowley (Greenbelt). "My heart breaks. This is so many kids."

Crowley spoke as the Board of Education reviewed a report on homeless students last week in Upper Marlboro.

Board members peppered school officials with questions about the county's homeless education program: Where are these students concentrated? What is their racial or ethnic background? How many live with their parents, and how many are by themselves? How far have they advanced in school?

Some board members questioned the figures' accuracy. Board member Jose Morales (Greenbelt) said some households have three or four families under one roof. "Maybe we have more [homelessness] and we're not counting it," he said.

Scott Hangey, director of strategic partnerships and new school development, told board members he would pursue answers to their questions. In his report, Hangey said the district works with shelters and social service providers to identify homeless students. They may live on the street or in welfare hotels, shelters, cars, abandoned buildings or temporary accommodations with other families.

Federal law requires school officials to give these students extra help. For instance, fees are waived for field trips, lockers, supplies and the like. Transportation is provided. Schools are also bound to take extra steps to make sure student records are in order.

State and federal funding for the county's homeless education project is $135,000.

'Race for Education'

Supporters of county schools will stage the second annual "Race for Education" on April 23 at Watkins Regional Park. The Saturday morning 5-kilometer run/walk will raise money for books.

School board member Dean Sirjue (Bowie), an organizer, said the race has another goal, one that he suspects is "almost controversial" in some quarters: "To get people to start rallying and make education their focus. We have to fix this community. We can't continue to blame the school system."

Sirjue said he hopes the race conveys another message to children often distracted by pursuits outside school: "It's cool to be bright. It's cool to be educated."

For more information, call 301-780-5909 or go to the school district's Web site, www.pgcps.org.

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