Utah home of first school for homeless children

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    By JULIE HOWARD

    Outside a shelter in Salt Lake City, a woman shouts incoherently at passers-by while rummaging through a push cart full of baby furniture. Others lean against the building and watch blankly — absorbed in the troubled, hungry world of homelessness.

    Inside the same shelter, 6-year-old Reece Garcia satisfies his hunger for learning during computer time in a brightly colored schoolroom that was the first school established for homeless children in the United States.

    Reece is one of 1,458 homeless children reported in Salt Lake City School District last year.

    Marilyn Treshow Elementary, founded in 1988, educates children from kindergarten through the third grade in the Traveler’s Aid Shelter. It is also a part of Salt Lake City School District.

    The school was named after a teacher who noticed homeless children under a viaduct each day during her morning commute. Marilyn Treshow began gathering books and teaching at the viaduct, she said. The classes developed into a school that was first housed in a trailer and later moved to the Traveler’s Aid Society’s family shelter.

    The Treshow School is provided as a choice for children whose parents want to keep them nearby while they are living in the shelter, said Shawna Carl, director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for Salt Lake City School District. The district also gives parents the option of bussing their children from the shelter to local public schools.

    Salt Lake City complies with federal law by allowing homeless children to enroll in any school in the district, including their school of origin — the school they attended before becoming homeless, Carl said.

    “I think one of the key pieces is that we have a school district taking responsibility for the school,” Carl said. “We follow the same curriculum as other public schools and use the same evaluation standards.”

    One of the big advantages to the Treshow school is the small class size and individualized attention the children receive, said Celeste Eggert, children’s case manager for the Traveler’s Aid Shelter.

    “It is really beneficial to our homeless children who are behind in school because they get really do get that individual attention at Treshow, and they really work to catch them up,” Eggert said.

    Children in the shelter have typically moved from school to school, she said. And because each move usually puts a child behind in school by almost three months, many of them are very far behind.

    “A lot of the children haven’t had a critical education base,” said Carrie Weaver, a former teacher at the school who ran it for more than six years. “We have first- through third-graders who can’t read or even recognize the alphabet.”

    Weaver builds individualized lesson plans for an average of 12 children at the school. Specialists in science, music and art also come and teach during the week.

    “It’s hard to be a kid when you’re worried about where you are going end up each night.” Weaver said. “Once the kids come in the classroom, they’re just free to be a kid.”

    Although Salt Lake City has worked to remove barriers for homeless students who want to attend separate schools or public schools, problems still persist in other areas of the United States, said Carl.

    These barriers include transportation, residency requirements, and difficulties in obtaining birth and immunization records, according to a report released last month by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

    “We have a number of homeless children sleeping in cars or trailers, and one of the first things most districts ask you when you go to enroll is ‘What is your address?'” Carl said.

    Separate schools for homeless children are generally established when the public system fails to remove barriers to public school enrollment, according to the report.

    These schools separate homeless children from superior resources in the public school system, according the report. They often do not follow public school curriculum, lack programs such as special education and are staffed by non-certified teachers.

    In 1998, the United States had almost 615,336 homeless children, with five states and the District of Columbia not reporting, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

    Reece’s mother, Rhonda Lopez, said the Treshow school has been a great opportunity for her son.

    “He’s begging for homework every day…it’s just more than I could expect,” she said.

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