In grander days, Tilden Career Community Academy housed an aviation program alongside its academics. When it was built in 1905, the building was intended for 2,400 students; it had three gymnasiums, and its massive footprint took up an entire block in Back of the Yards. Today the building remains the same, but Tilden has an enrollment of only about 340 students, 192 of whom were classified last year as homeless by the city’s Students in Temporary Living Situations (STLS) program. Last year saw a total of 18,669 homeless students identified in Chicago Public Schools. This year, that number is on track to rise by over twenty-five percent.
“When I come to school and see all these empty lots, I can remember houses, families, friends in a lot of these areas,” says Michael Finney, community connector and director of after-school programs at Tilden. “Now the houses are gone. Nine times out of ten, the people are gone from the area. It creates a situation of poverty.”
When we meet, Finney’s hands and face are flecked with the bright yellow—he’s painting a room intended to host the school’s after-school radio program. He has a few students in to help him even on a Friday afternoon over break, lured with the promise of a free lunch. Finney is hopeful about the school’s future; “Tilden, we’re on the upward move,” he says. In the 2011-2012 school year Tilden received six million dollars in a federal School Improvement Grant. In the following year CPS implemented a contentious “turnaround” at the school, replacing its principal and the majority of its staff. This past fall, the school moved up from a Tier 3 to Tier 2 quality rating. Still, Tilden has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the CPS system, and last year these students received none of the federal aid promised by the STLS program.
J.D. Klippenstein, a community organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), discovered this oversight. “We had students call the head of the homeless program at CPS twice a day for two weeks, until she finally said: ‘All I do is tell the principal how much to spend, and then I don’t check. I don’t check if they spend this money or not,’ ” Klippenstein says. The students then wrote a letter to the principal, who gave it to the school clerk. “The clerk told them, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about. We don’t set aside money for homeless students.’ ”
As the CPS document outlining the rights of homeless students promises, “every CPS homeless student shall have equal access to the same free and appropriate educational opportunities as students who are not homeless.” This includes the right to immediate school enrollment, priority in certain preschool programs, free uniforms, and fee waivers for necessities such as field trips, lab supplies, and graduation fees, provided to schools as block grants from Title I federal funds.
These rights are outlined in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, which also requires that each school provide transportation for students who relocate due to unstable housing, which may take the form of CTA cards or school buses. This is intended to prevent students from having to switch schools each time they switch housing. The federal definition of homeless, also laid out in the act, includes situations that many consider far less extreme, including children living with relatives or families doubling up due to financial strain.
Last year, Tilden had no record of a budget for these services and no record of it being spent. “Basically the clerk was right. She had never heard of it. They had never set aside any of their money,” says Klippenstein.
Rather than a specific problem of Tilden’s, Klippenstein sees this as the systemic result of a lack of training from CPS, and a lack of accountability between individual schools and central offices. “What happened at Tilden last year likely happened at dozens, if not hundreds, of other CPS schools because of a lack of training, understanding, and oversight,” he says.
A 1999 class action lawsuit by CCH’s Law Project against CPS resulted in the establishment of a homeless education program and a system of liaisons at the school level, but the development is ongoing. “There’s a good framework for what they’re supposed to do, but it just doesn’t always happen at the individual school level,” says Patricia Nix-Hodes, associate director of CCH’s Law Project.
“There’s a lack of training, there’s a lack of people even checking up on schools. I think you get a certain distance south, and the central office is like ‘Oh, that’s too far away,’ ” says Klippenstein. He laughs, “I don’t think that’s literally how they think, but it’s how they act.”
Klippenstein also worries that the numbers of kids in the program are dramatically underreported due to a combination of social stigma and lack of eligibility awareness. “I think that a lot of families don’t even realize they would qualify for this, because doubling up and moving from place to place is just normal. It’s something that they’ve always done. When you say that qualifies as homeless, they’re like: ‘I’m not homeless. I’m not living on the street. I’m not begging for change,’ ” Klippenstein says.
Patricia Rivera worked in CPS for thirty-three years, first as a social worker and then as a program manager for STLS. Though retired, she now serves as the volunteer executive director for a nonprofit providing after-school tutoring to children in shelters. She had a part in removing the word “homeless” from the CPS program’s name in an attempt to decrease stigma, increase rates of reportage, and to emphasize the disruption that unstable housing can cause in a student’s academic trajectory. “If they change schools, kids are set back academically three to six months in their academic advancement. Now, if they’re in the shelter system a long time, they pretty much stagnate,” she says.
Nevertheless, Rivera is quick to recall high school students she’s worked with who will travel for over an hour on the CTA, make sure they get themselves to school on time, and excel academically despite not having anywhere in the shelters to do their homework. “They know that in order to get ahead they need an education,” she says.
As CPS upheaval continues amid closures, Klippenstein remains sure that teaching homeless students and families their rights is an important effort for CCH. “The idea is that it’s changing the way that these homeless families interact with the institutions that they’re involved in,” he says. “Right now there’s this lack of awareness, this total sense of powerlessness, so right now the work we do is to try to start changing the way they interact with their school.”
Even so, the truth remains that there are only four or five full-time staff at the STLS program tasked with serving nearly twenty thousand students. Homeless liaisons at individual schools remain unpaid and relatively unsupervised, though a new line item required in school budgets raises accountability—in part due to CCH’s recent advocacy work. CPS is a school system of over four hundred thousand students, with a low-income rate of eighty-seven percent. At Tilden, Michael Finney believes that the need is simply too great for the central office to handle alone. In the meantime, it’s up to individuals to do what they can. “If I see somebody freezing and I know they need a coat, I’m not going to wait to get approval from the school or anybody. Hey, this person is cold. They’re freezing. Help them out.”
Chicago Hopes, Patricia Rivera’s in-shelter tutoring program, was denied CPS funds and now operates by means of donations, unpaid internships, and volunteer time. When asked if she thinks this is right, Rivera sighs. “I think these services should be provided to the kids, period,” she says. “It would be great if the shelters could provide; it would be great if CPS would provide. They’re not doing it, so we’re in there trying to fill a need. I really think the school system should do this, but in the meantime we’re there.”