In October I sat down again with Sheleah Harris. But this time we visited the Aspire Hanley Elementary School in Orange Mound for a chat with Candice Fondren, who works for Communities In Schools of Memphis and helps place kids and families whose worlds are in a sudden state of upheaval.
Communities In Schools of Tennessee at Memphis is part of the national Communities In School network, an organization leading the way around the country in their dedication to preventing kids from dropping out of school. They work with anyone and everyone possible to eliminate barriers to achievement – “we never give up on anyone!” – to keep kids in schools.
Candice and Sheleah, I discovered, encounter each other on occasion when they must act – and act right away – to help a displaced family in need. They are friendly and knowing with each other, like a couple siblings who hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks.
As for the interview, they asked me, how do you want to do this?
Already feeling out of place – an older white man amongst a few smiling and enthusiastic African American women, and kids voices echoing down the halls – I went with this sudden feeling of vulnerability and said, “Why don’t you walk me through the process as though I were a homeless parent here to enroll their kids into school?”
I am a parent myself. My son is 19 now but it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was dropping him off for his first day of kindergarten, not knowing who was more afraid of the new day ahead: me or him.
Upon my suggestion, all three women around the front desk looked at each other, grinned, maybe snickered, and said “Ok!”
Here is how it went.
Imagining three kids with me, thinking about not having any place to go home to, wondering what I was going to do next, where I might sleep that night – all of it – I was immediately in a place of helplessness, shame, and fear.
I followed Candice and Sheleah down the hall to Candice’s office – kids were back in their classrooms now – the writer and interviewer in me disappeared, and suddenly I did not know what to say, or what to ask.
I was simply putting myself in someone else’s place, but that place was a huge unknown, and already it was overwhelming.
What do I do?
Where do I go?
What’s to become of my kids?
We sat down at Miss Fondren’s desk. Miss Harris sat to my right. And I realized that a parent in this position may not have eaten yet in the middle of the day, may not have showered, and may very well be at their first stop since being displaced. They may have had to take a few buses to get here, or they walked, or perhaps they had gotten a ride.
And, if I were a woman, I might have been fleeing from a domestic violence situation.
My first thoughts were of shame. How could I let this happen? How could I have let down my kids?
And, forget about what I am going to do tomorrow – what am I going to do when we leave school? Where will I go? Where will we sleep?
“It’s ok,” said Miss Fondren. “It’s going to be ok.”
Those words alone just about brought tears to my eyes. To a person in this position, having been through all that they may have been through up that very moment, the words were comforting. And, they felt true.
“Can my child get into a classroom today?” I asked.
“The short answer,” Miss Fondren said, “is yes. We have school supplies here, we have a few toiletry items here, we can get him enrolled right now.”
Miss Harris chimed in. “State law says that a child cannot be denied enrollment into school.”
What about immunization records? A birth certificate? Prior school records?
“No,” Miss Harris continued. “By law they aren’t required to have any of that.”
Indeed, the enrollment subsection of the McKinney-Vento Act says that “The enrollment policy must allow children and youth to immediately enroll in school even if they are not able to produce documents generally required for school enrollment.”
There are other “must-have’s” as defined by the act, and they are all discussed during this initial meeting (see below).
Resources are discussed. Forms are mentioned. The child’s new teacher will be notified. Placement services will be notified for housing opportunities.
“And Miss Harris here,” said Miss Fondren, “she has a partnership with the Department of Housing and Community Development.”
It can a lot to absorb to the newly-displaced parent, worried about all the little things required to get through any given day. Basic supplies are mentioned again.
“In that closet,” said Miss Fondren, “we have uniforms, we have supplies, we have everything they need to get into class today.”
On the desk are a few unmarked bags. They are full of supplies Miss Harris told me. “Grace bags,” she said. “We call them Grace bags. They are just some basics: toiletries, a tooth brush, deodorant, socks…”
But the transcripts, the requests for immunization records, health records, everything… “You don’t need to worry about all that. I’ll worry about that,” said Miss Fondren. “We can get them in the classroom today, and just bring them back again tomorrow.”
Many parents, they both agree, don’t know all of these things. They aren’t aware of the resources they have. And, how would they?
“It’s our job to tell them all of this. It’s our job to give them support. It’s our job to make them feel comfortable coming to school.”
Like a safe haven.
“Yes,” said Miss Harris, “a safe haven.”
Both women acknowledge that their efforts sometimes feel like little miracles. Their hard work reminds us of the critical difference that is made by the big hearts and souls of individuals like these two, a difference felt by so many who might otherwise continue down the spiraling path that is homelessness.