‘We’re here for them’
School officials reach out to help homeless kids get to class
GREENFIELD — Greenfield schools registrar Lisa McGuinness begins each work day by visiting homeless families at the Days Inn and Quality Inn. She chats with parents as they wait for school buses to arrive and checks in with hotel staff to see if any new families have enrolled in the school department.
She ends her days at the hotels, too, and sometimes makes multiple trips back-and-forth from her Davis Street office to connect with families who have enrolled and look for those who have not.
The Greenfield School Department has been scrambling this month to enroll 90 new students into the town’s schools. An apparent shortage of participating hotels and motels in eastern and central Massachusetts brought 60 new families, and well over 100 school-aged children, to Greenfield this month.
And though it has challenged a school system that already was growing in local enrollment, officials say they’ve embraced their responsibility to provide a safe and welcoming place for the homeless children.
“These kids are living something we wouldn’t wish for anybody,” said Newton School Principal Melodie Goodwin. The elementary school has enrolled nearly 50 students in the past month.
“They need us and we’re here for them,” she said. “There’s a lot of heart in our community.”
Teachers and students have really stepped up, said Goodwin. At least one third-grade teacher assigns special jobs to students to help new arrivals, like showing them where the cafeteria or nurse’s office is located.
And Goodwin, who herself moved 33 times in 20 years during her childhood, tells the new students that she knows what the experience is like. She gives them a lucky pencil and some snacks on their first day. Local donations have allowed the schools to connect some students with backpacks and supplies, she said.
Newton School, the elementary school located within a mile of the two hotels, has seen the highest population surge. About 50 of the school’s 250 students came from the hotels this month.
The school can support 350 students, said Goodwin. Unused storage spaces are being cleaned and furnished for counseling and tutor spaces. The staff is changing one full-size room into a new classroom.
Parents have been concerned about rising class sizes, particularly in third grade where two classrooms have about 25 to 26 students. Goodwin said that retired teachers have taken on tutoring roles to assist teachers and break up classes into smaller groups.
She hopes to hire two new teachers, one for third grade and one for combined kindergarten and first grade, to lower class sizes. Parents will be informed and asked permission before their children change classrooms, she said.
Other students are attending the middle and high schools, which led school department officials to add a new bus that picks up students directly from the hotels.
William Bazyk, the department’s special education director and homeless education liaison, said the biggest challenge wasn’t the number of students but how quickly they enrolled, without warning from the state.
“It was having to do so much at once,” said Bazyk. “That’s the type of work we do all summer (and) we were forced to do it in a very short period of time.”
Officials said that a three-week frenzy is slowing down and that they’re almost caught up on enrolling students, tracking down their records from past schools and making sure they have what they need to attend class.
They hope to finalize all new hiring — of faculty, tutors and English language learners — by next week. Mayor William Martin, who is chairman of the School Committee, also hopes to identify by early next week exactly what the surge of homelessness is costing the department. He said the town will appeal for state aid.
All families who arrive at the hotels are told about how to enroll in Greenfield schools, said Robin Sherman, executive director of the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority — the organization responsible for helping connect families with services.
“Not enrolling your children in school is not an option,” she said. “School-age children need to be in school.”
A federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, says that students are entitled to continue attending their school of origin or enroll in schools in the town where they temporarily reside. Greenfield transports about 15 students from the Springfield area to their own schools each day. An unknown number of other parents commute to central and eastern Massachusetts daily and take their children with them to attend schools there.
Bazyk said that it’s always school officials’ top preference to help students continue attending their own schools if they can. But sometimes it’s just not possible.
Goodwin said that some of her students have already attended multiple schools in the past month. She said that many are shy, nervous and anxious about having to again enter a new environment.
Officials said that older students are more likely to resist entering a new school, especially since the state is promising that this is a temporary, and not permanent, solution.
But there’s little Greenfield officials can do to ensure that families enroll. They don’t have access to any list that shows families who aren’t enrolled. They’re also not allowed to walk around halls or knock on doors and must instead depend on communicating information through word-of-mouth or messages passed along by hotel staff.
Once they do enroll, McGuinness, the registrar, is able to connect them with additional services, like free or deeply discounted meals during school.
Bernie Novak, director of food and nutrition services, said that there’s been about 30 additional meals a day at Newton School and that it hasn’t been a burden on food staff.