by Mark McGowan
One of the Oklahoma City fourth-graders in Maylan Dunn-Kenney’s inner-city classroom had spent years living inside her family’s car.
Equipped with this knowledge – thanks to a foster care placement with involved and caring guardians – Dunn-Kenney then watched in amazement as the bright girl quickly caught up to her classmates academically. Her reading level even reached the next grade.
“I gave her just a little special attention, maybe just a few minutes of review or stopping at her desk a little more often,” says Dunn-Kenney, now an associate professor of early childhood education in NIU’s Department of Teaching and Learning. “She had the ability to succeed in school but never the opportunity.”
Homeless children are likely found in every U.S. school but many keep their situation a closely guarded secret, probably unaware of federal protections that guarantee access to education. Teachers who recognize homelessness or are made aware of it can make a world of difference.
Dunn-Kenney, working with nationally known homelessness advocate Diane Nilan, has created a curriculum for future teachers that will help them recognize signs of homelessness and then intervene to provide the best-possible education under difficult circumstances.
Donna Martin, research development specialist in the Office of Sponsored Projects, paired Dunn-Kenney with Nilan and NIU communications professor Laura Vazquez after the filmmakers requested a teacher educator. Dunn-Kenney also received a College of Education Dean’s Grant to fund some of her activities.
The curriculum, already being woven into some College of Education courses, is available online at Nilan’s Web site (www.hearus.us) under “Jonathon’s Heart” and requires three hours to present.
Nilan’s site also includes “My Own Four Walls,” a video she filmed during her many trips across the country to make teachers more knowledgeable of the plights of homeless children. Vazquez and alumna Becca Berry helped to create the final form of the video.
“When you show the video, teachers become more sensitive,” Dunn-Kenney says, “but they really don’t know what to do. Now we have really specific instructions for the classroom so that if teachers are faced with this complex problem their own role is understandable.”
“I’m very excited that Maylan was able to put her experience, energies and passions into a project that’s going to help future educators recognize and understand that homeless kids are in classrooms across the country,” Nilan says. “Maylan really understands the issues, not only from an educator’s standpoint, but she’s also very sensitive to the plight of homeless students.”
Dunn-Kenney’s guidelines include several warning signs for homelessness, including a lack of continuity in education, attendance problems and poor health and nutrition.
Teachers also learn more about the McKinney-Vento Act, the federal legislation that guarantees school to homeless children and lays out expectations for schools to identify and assist homeless students.
McKinney-Vento also contains a mandate for each school district to provide a liaison to homeless families, Dunn-Kenny says, although many of those liaisons have other duties and lack the resources to perform adequate outreach and intervention.
She also provides case studies – about Anna, a first-grader who’s already on her third school; about Jason, a preschooler living with various relatives and is never sure who will pick him up; about Joseph, who sometimes leaves early with breathing difficulties and has missed a dozen days by October; about Tikia, who lives in a shelter, rarely brings supplies or homework and whose mother was a middle school dropout – and asks students to list potential assets and needs, resources and possible actions.
The curriculum includes a screening of “My Own Four Walls” and a discussion afterward with two main questions: What do homeless children need, and what do they need from teachers?
“Homeless children are ordinary children, and this is something that’s happened to them in their lives. Extremely intelligent children experience homelessness,” Dunn-Kenney says. “We need to provide stability and routine. They have emotional upheavals. They might be homeless on and off, causing lots of disruptions.”
Relieving the secrecy is a major step.
Families are more willing to communicate and cooperate when their situation is exposed because they no longer fear the revelation, she says. For children, the effect is even more dramatic: They can concentrate on schoolwork rather than subterfuge.
“Their anxiety subsides by not having to keep the secret anymore,” she says. “It’s really hard for children to keep secrets, and this makes them mentally cleared up.”
Sensitivity and understanding on the part of teachers is critical.
No two homeless children are alike nor are the reasons for their homelessness. Some parents are unemployed, perhaps the result of accidents. Others are in poor health, physically or mentally, and maybe because of drugs or alcohol. Others are the victims of dishonest landlords or the current subprime crisis.
The needs of homeless children could prove as simple as a free supply of paper and a few minutes before class to complete homework, things that Dunn-Kenney says teachers should happily provide.
Classroom teachers should avoid criticism of homeless parents if they want to keep the students in their good graces, Dunn-Kenney says. “All children will defend their parents,” she says.
Academically, homeless children need diagnostics and perhaps remediation. For example, they quickly will fall behind if the day’s lesson plans involve fractions and they barely know long division.
Dunn-Kenney found much of her information on the Web site of the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The SERVE Center supports and promotes teaching and learning excellence in the P-12 community through research, development, dissemination, evaluation and technical assistance.
Now educators across the country can access Dunn-Kenney’s curriculum at no cost along with several links to places such as SERVE that provide further data.
“She made it simple,” Nilan says. “It’s information that you can take at face-value and plug right into a college curriculum, but it also leaves a lot of room for adaptation and offers a lot of resources for those who are interested in the topic and want to pursue it deeper.”
Nilan is convinced the work of HEAR US Inc. and the Jonathon’s Heart curriculum will make a difference.
“I’ve seen kids who are homeless and, because of a sensitive teacher, I’ve seen these kids thrive in school and reach great heights,” she says. “That’s the best any teacher can hope for.”