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Watt Way: Online Magazine

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Pamela Hughes: “I have to be optimistic. I can’t give up on children”

 

At Ninth Street Elementary School, things are a little bit different from normal elementary schools. Situated a stone’s throw from Skid Row, the K-5 school teaches approximately 400 children, of whom half are homeless. The school even has its own pupil services and attendance counselor, on site two days a week to help out the children with many of the difficulties they face, paid for with the scant McKinney-Vento funds allocated to the LAUSD Homeless Education Program.

 

In charge of this unique and challenged student population is Pamela Hughes. Before she showed up as the principal here five years ago, she was completely unaware of the extent of the homeless schoolchildren problem in Los Angeles.

 

“Before I came down here I knew about homeless people, but I had no idea there were so many homeless children until I started working here myself,” she said. “People don’t realize that there’s so many… When you think of homelessness you think of adults, people with addiction problems and mentally ill people. You don’t associate it with women and children.”

 

Nationwide, homelessness has an astounding impact on educational outcomes for children. Homeless children are four times more likely to drop out of school and two times more likely to score lower on standardized tests; one in 10 homeless students will miss at least one month of school each year, 36% have repeated a grade, and 14% - double that of other children – are diagnosed with a learning disability; and all of these problems are caused, exacerbated and affected in myriad ways by the fact that many homeless children lack basic school supplies and live in environments that make doing their homework difficult in the best of times.

 

“It affects their learning… It would affect an adult’s learning as well,” said Hughes. “They’re trying to survive, their parents are trying to survive, they’ve got to wonder whether or not they have a place to say. We’re talking about children with such uncertainty… And most of their parents are really trying hard too, and they’re doing the best that they can do, but sometimes their minds are not always on learning.”

 

There’s also another obstacle to a healthy learning environment at the school – discipline problems are rife at Ninth Street Elementary, as many children lack a proper, stable social environment outside of school.

“I think the social issues are so tremendous, and they often outweigh the academic issues,” said Hughes. “There are a lot of problems with kids fighting, and their discipline problems at [their shelters], and it carries over to the school.”

 

While the district is doing as much as it can to assist schools and their homeless students with its limited personnel and funding, it’s just not enough. Hughes notes that, among other things, she needs more counselors and social workers due to the numerous social problems many of her students have.

 

However, as is common amongst those working with homeless schoolchildren, Hughes stays optimistic, even in the face of what are often overwhelming odds for the children she’s in charge of. “I have to be optimistic,” she said. “I can’t give up on children.”

 

-- Matthew Mundy

 

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