HEAR US: Hearing is Learning

A Simple Way to Help Homeless Students Succeed in School

I’ve spent decades of my life fighting to make sure kids experiencing homelessness could get the best education possible. It’s the least we can do — to make sure they can become successful adults.

In September 1993, I was running a shelter. One of our families wanted their children to continue at the school they attended before coming to our shelter. The school district said no.

But the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness has come to the aid of the mother and the three youngsters in what its president, Diane Nilan, is calling “a David vs. Goliath battle” over their rights.

How the Naperville case-believed to be the first of its kind in the Chicago area-is resolved may have a bearing on further defining the rights of the homeless, particularly now that they are becoming a part of the landscape in affluent Du Page and in other places where homelessness had never been a big worry. (Chicago Tribune, 9/4/1993)

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Little did I know back then, as we endured a prolonged court battle, that I’d still be immersed in the uphill climb to give millions of homeless kids a fair chance to get an education. This USA Today article highlights my current HEAR US efforts.

Today’s challenge goes beyond making sure kids get identified as “McKinney-Vento-eligible,” referring to the federal law that removes educational barriers for students in homeless situations. Covid-19 has upped the ante. Families and youth have lost housing and scattered hither-and-yon because of the pandemic. Schools are either closed or schedules are in flux. It’s hard for both families and schools to address issues related to homelessness.

Nothing is normal for families and youth experiencing homelessness in these strange times. Education, the one thing they could count on, is now helter-skelter.

  • They’re lucky if they have electronic devices to connect to the internet.
  • Even luckier if they have a way to power those devices.
  • And if they can access a signal strong enough to get them through their daily lessons, well, that’s astounding!

Many kids share devices, often ancient, dilapidated smart phones belonging to parents who may or may not be able to share it. I can’t imagine trying to follow lessons on a tiny, cracked screen, much less wrestling with siblings for time to connect with lessons.

Sitting on the curb of a fast-food restaurant to grab wifi, more common than you think, doesn’t help one’s concentration. Two students in Salinas, CA were spotted curbside at Taco Bell, prompting an uproar.

Parents and students should not be forced to choose between going to school and getting sick with the virus, or staying home with inadequate resources to participate in online schooling. On the contrary, the demand must be made to provide whatever resources are needed to make sure that all children receive high quality education, including decent housing, health services, and the tools and internet connection necessary for online education. (WSWS.org, 9/2/20)

The challenges of squeezing bandwidth to get your education might be foreign to those with adequate resources. Millions of kids could teach that course.

Another aspect that escapes many, including educators — hearing your lessons.

I spend plenty of time working in coffeeshops and other noisy environments. My headphones give me the quiet that I need to concentrate.

Most kids in homeless situations are not in quiet places. I know from my shelter-running days — those are tumultuous places. Motel rooms, 21st Century “homeless shelters,” are typically crowded, noisy, distracting settings. Those in the vicinity of the learner might not want to hear the lessons, either, creating tension in an already strained situation.

Simple Solution

Why not give kids a fighting chance to thrive in these vexing conditions?

An article in ADDITUDE magazine on distance learning challenges facing students with IEPs or 504 Plans recommended headphones.

“Environmental noise can be hugely distracting for children diagnosed with ADHD. If your home learning environment has multiple children and distractions throughout the day, noise-canceling headphones may be a worthwhile purchase.”

Here’s the reality:

Students — homeless or struggling with poverty — have a hard enough time finding equipment, locking onto a signal, and keeping their battery charged. Their workspaces will likely be noisy. Headphones are a cheap solution. If your district isn’t offering headphones to students experiencing homelessness, I’d ask why not?

dismazed and driven Diane Nilan’s new book
dismazed and driven Diane Nilan’s new book

Diane Nilan’s new book, Dismazed and Driven, a social narrative/memoir, is due to be released late September, 2020.

Cover design:
Chad Bruce
Charles Bruce Foundation

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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