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In The Arena

In the Arena: No shelter from the issues

The conversion of Greenfield’s rotary motels into de facto homeless shelters for displaced Boston-area families has been one of the more frustrating and heart-warming stories in recent memory.

The heart-warming part took place this week, when a group of local residents began developing a strategy to help the close to 93 families who have been unceremoniously dumped here by the commonwealth because of a lack of shelter space inside of Interstate 495.

But the frustrating — and largely untold — part of the story is the impact this situation is having on town services, particularly in the schools.

“I’m not trying to say these problems are more important than what these families are facing,” Greenfield School Superintendent Susan Hollins told the School Committee recently. “But they are significant problems that we have to address.”

Hollins said the issues are not with the students themselves, but the circumstances under which they have found themselves at the district’s door.

“Some of these students are terrific, but it is a huge investment of time in getting them acclimated, because of the circumstances related to their relocation,” Hollins said. “Some students aren’t able to stay with their siblings and going to different schools with new curricula, and then they are forced to move again in three weeks ... it can almost be as traumatic as being homeless.”

Greenfield Mayor Bill Martin says Massachusetts’ status as a “right to shelter” state mandates that communities provide services to homeless individuals and families once they have been so identified. In Greenfield’s case, according to Hollins, that translates into new staff at Newton Street School, the elementary school in closest proximity to the motels where the majority of these students and families are living.

“There are no trained staff members in the hotels where these families are staying,” Hollins said. “Shelters provide certain therapy services to help children deal with the traumas related to their situation.”

Hollins says that will likely mean at least one full-time social worker and possibly a school psychologist at Newton Street School, as well as possibly three new staff members to deal with the influx of children who will require a good deal of extra help.

“For example, we have three kindergartens at Newton, with a total of 59 students, which is roughly 20 per classroom,” Hollins said. “You add 10 more to that number and it becomes a much different story.”

The logistical issues are not confined to the elementary schools, however. Greenfield High School has seen new arrivals, some of whom left as quickly as they came, which could impact that school’s dropout rates.

“Some agencies have told these families that they have to register in school within seven days of arrival,” Hollins said. “So a student comes in and registers at the high school, and then if they leave a week later, they are classified as high school dropouts by the state.”

Hollins says there are also potential long-term implications related to special education. She told the committee if a student registers and receives special education services but are only here for a short time, the district, under current law, could be on the hook for that student’s SPED tuition placement until they establish residence somewhere else.

“And there are some cases where it will require that we assume responsibility for 8, 10 or 12 years,” Martin said. “It’s not a problem we can solve on our own, but we need to find a way to deal with it.”

Dealing with extra students might have been less of an issue a few years ago, when Greenfield’s enrollment numbers were down, but that’s not the case anymore — leading Martin to wonder why the state hasn’t considered placing some of these students in districts like Mohawk, which has a 33 percent vacancy rate.

“That’s a good question someone should be asking,” Martin added, “There are huge issues involved here.”

Hopefully, they will get some help on that score, before the price tag really begins to get out of hand.

Greenfield ties

Whoever wrote that there are no second acts in American politics should consider the case of former Greenfield Town Solicitor Richard Kos, who took 59 percent of the vote this week to win a second stint as Chicopee mayor, defeating eight-year incumbent Michael Bissonnette.

Kos is best known in these parts as the legal mouthpiece for both former Greenfield Mayor Christine Forgey and current Mayor Bill Martin, while also serving as a sounding board for the town’s transition from a board of selectmen to a mayoral form of government.

“He was invaluable, because we were all still trying to figure out how the whole thing worked,” former Town Council President Dan Guin said. “There were a number of times when we had to call him up when there was a question, and he always seemed to have the answer.”

Kos will likely need even more answers if he hopes to successfully navigate that city toward a new era of economic solvency.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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