The older kids led the way, younger siblings trailing in their wake, as they broke into a school. It wasn't a random act of vandalism. No graffiti was painted on the walls. Computers weren't hauled away, and the petty cash drawer was untouched.
"All they took was food," said Sheila Edwards, assistant principal at Grissom Elementary, a pre-K-to-fifth grade neighborhood facility off Post Oak plunked down in an area dominated by yards upon yards of metal shedding and nearby houses that can be carefully kept or ringed with garbage tossed out on the lawns.
Caught on videotape, the culprits were quickly identified. The break-in hadn't actually occurred at Grissom, but since some of the children went to Grissom and one was in fourth-grade teacher Sherri Norwood's class, Edwards and Norwood figured it was their business and went to the home to sort things out.
"We went to the house and, oh my goodness, it was bad," Edwards said. So she called the kids over and said: "Whatever you all took from the school, bring that stuff back here front and center."
They told her: "We were hungry." She asked a boy who was there what there was to eat. He told her there was a jug of water in the refrigerator. And other than a few packets of seasoning, he wasn't leaving anything out in his inventory. There was just a lone gallon jug of water.
"So Ms. Norwood and I started digging in our purses because we had to feed these children today. We knew there had to be something for the long term, but in the short term on the route back to school, we stopped at Popeyes and bought them a box of chicken and side orders." Back at the school, they put the kids around the table and ordered them to eat, setting aside some for their older sisters at another school.
Of the 800 kids at Grissom Elementary, 300 of them — or 37 percent — are classified as homeless (a number not reached until the end of the school year last year). And Grissom isn't unique or even the school with the most homeless in the Houston Independent School District — that distinction probably goes to Ruby Thompson, which is tied into the Star of Hope family shelter.
Homeless doesn't always mean kids are out on the street or living in a shelter. At Grissom, most have moved in with another family, whether friends or relatives — that's called "doubling up."
They can be classified as homeless while they're still in their houses or apartments but have no utilities because the family can't afford to pay for them. "You have the shell of the house, but you have no running water, no electricity; you're basically camping in the house," said Peter Messiah, head of the HISD Homeless Education Office.
Across the sprawling urban-suburban-rural district that is HISD, there are 3,000 kids identified as homeless, Messiah said. He predicts with confidence that actually there are a lot more with families too embarrassed to "self-identify," to say they have no place to call their own.
At schools with heavy percentages of homeless kids, problems and needs occur that aren't going to happen en masse at, say, a River Oaks or West U elementary.
Math specialist Paula Correa said it's not unusual for students to come to school and tell her: "My dad has just been deported. My mom has to go back to Mexico, but I'm born here and I want to stay here." In one case, the father had been deported twice, and the mother was left with seven children. Edwards put a note in teachers' boxes asking for donations, and when they took them over, "They acted as if we'd brought Jesus to the house."
Sometimes the nonacademic endeavors include combing out a girl's hair in the morning when a depressed parent has abandoned the task or whisking someone off to the restroom for a quick scrub when personal hygiene has lapsed. A kid who shows up in shorts on a freezing day is taken to the counselor's office, where Deborah Coleman dips into her closet and comes out with something warm.
"We have extra coats. We have extra food. We do a lot of work with the whole child and not just the classroom piece of the child," said Principal Cynthia Smith.
They even teach elementary-age kids how to wash their own clothes in the sink at night.
"We tell them, 'Your mom might not be able to wash your clothes, but you can. Put it in the sink and wash it out, rinse it out,'" third-grade teacher Tareese Glover said.
Smith explained: "Sometimes they don't have washers at the house. They might have only one shirt. So we tell them, 'Even if you don't wash the whole thing out, put it under the water and wash under the arms.'"
Glover continued: "We tell them how to wash their own clothes and how to hang them up and how to be neat even though you might have but this one pair of pants. Take pride in what you have and come in the next day with that shirt on, shirttail tucked in.
"You're still a prince; you're still a princess; you're still a child of God. And we still love you, and you can learn no matter what your situation is. And we try to instill that in our babies every day."
Homeless kids tend to move around a lot, either because they or their families have falling-outs with their host families, or the places they're living become just too unbearable. It's the kind of constant turmoil that makes staying focused in school difficult.
There are more and more homeless kids in the Houston Independent School District, in part because HISD is doing a better job of identifying them, but also because for their families, the recession hasn't gone away, Messiah said.
He sends out members of his six-person staff to educate teachers, administrators and front-desk personnel about what to look for and how to help, and he hopes the message will be passed on and spread like wildfire.
That's because when the two-year federal stimulus money runs out, his six-person office will drop back to one (him). And because: "It's not going away. Unfortunately for some kids, it becomes a way of life for them and their families."
In addition to the stimulus money, Messiah has a regular budget of $180,000 a year, as well as some Title I funding for at-risk kids — to provide emergency clothing, toiletries and Metro passes for bus rides. That doesn't go far in a district as large as HISD. "We try to make their life in the school setting as safe as possible. At least in the educational setting, they have some stability."
But even now, the system depends on help from volunteers.
Every Friday, people from the Southside Church of God travel to the Houston Food Bank to pick up food in what are called "backpack buddies" that will get kids at Grissom through the weekend. Grissom counselor Coleman oversees this program, as well as distributing jackets, other clothing and toiletries from her brightly colored office. Two other small churches donate school supplies and clothing.
Coleman counsels children when they ask her to, when their parents call her or when teachers spot something going wrong, like dropped grades or a kid who's always trying to cadge food from his friends. Homeless kids have the same problems as other kids — grief and divorce, for instance; their lower socioeconomic level just means it happens more often, she said.
Homeless kids at the elementary level have a different set of problems than teens, who are more independent and sometimes have a different set of reasons for leaving the home — maybe they've "come out" to disapproving parents or they're fleeing perceived or real domestic abuse, Messiah said. In Houston, that's especially tough because this area doesn't have a shelter that opens its doors to anyone under 18 unless a parent checks him in, he said. For every "sofa surfer" who digs down deep and excels at school, seeing it as a way out of the situation he's in, others turn to the sex trade business or crime just to supply basic shelter, food and clothing needs, Messiah said.
At Grissom, transportation is a big and recurring problem, Smith said. If students live within a two-mile radius and have to walk to school and it's a cold or rainy day, they may not make it, she said. "It's difficult for parents to get them here if they don't have transportation," she said.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which put an end to setting aside separate schools for homeless children across the country, calls for school districts to provide transportation for these kids. That is more difficult with the youngest students, Messiah said.
"With the elementary students, it's pretty tough, because they can't get on a [Metro] bus by themselves," Messiah said. "It's an additional cost because you need to get a bus pass for the parent themselves to go back and forth."
There is no homeless list at Grissom, Principal Smith stresses. "We just discover need as need arises." And sometimes that takes some doing, because kids who are homeless don't always appear to be in need on the surface.
"You see Timmy who is homeless getting out of this nice car and you think, 'Oh, Timmy's okay,' but it's the host family's car," Messiah said. "You get caught up looking at the physical trappings."
And the school district works hard to make sure kids aren't singled out to their peers. When backpacks are handed out, no one can tell which ones have school uniforms inside, he said.
At Grissom, teachers are expected to stay in contact with their students on a daily basis and to call their homes when they don't show up for school. If it isn't illness that's keeping a kid away, counselor Coleman gets involved, Smith said. Home visits are not uncommon. Attendance is up this year, she said, so they think their methods are working.
Smith insists her teachers be "firm, fair and consistent" with their charges, and insists that their students should be held up to high academic standards. "We're educating the future presidents, the future world leaders here." There isn't a trace of sarcasm in her statement.
And despite what she says are the "draining" requirements of the job for all the staff at Grissom, Smith says she doesn't have a big turnover. "We feel we're on a mission and not on a job."
Last year, an 11-year-old boy lost his mother to cancer and went to live with his grandmother. Teacher Norwood "stepped right in along with the administrators and teachers and took him home from school and to tutorials."
The mother with seven children and the husband deported for the second time? Correa and Edwards did a cooking demonstration for the mom, who couldn't read English, so she could understand what to do with the donated food.
The family with nothing but a jug of water ended up inheriting furniture from Grissom that the school had planned to discard.
Not everything has a happy ending or even a happy "now," despite their best efforts. "It's not all fluff. Sometimes you get down to the nitty-gritty," Edwards said, which takes its toll on teachers.
A staff member painstakingly combs a girl's hair, then tells her to go on to breakfast and is screamed at in a mean way. A group of boys gets a trip to the barbershop, but on the next day gets into a fight at school. Word comes back to the school that a former student, now older, has gotten pregnant but doesn't want the teachers at Grissom to know.
"Things are not always positive, but our teachers are resilient. They keep coming back," Edwards said.
At last year's end-of-year ceremonies at Grissom, not all the fifth-grade students had arrived dressed up enough to cross the stage. Edwards got on the PA system asking for white shirts and black pants and whether anyone had size 8 shoes and could they take them off long enough to allow a student to wear them for the ceremony. One teacher donated his belt, took it off in class and handed it over.
In HISD, students can continue to get a free lunch at summer school. When that's over, they're on their own, looking for other programs. A school like Grissom and its staff becomes a lifeline to students and their families who are trying to survive.
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It is shocking and appalling that we have so many homeless children in Houston, kids who may not know where they'll be from one night to the next, whose advantages are few. Teachers at Grissom, who don't make a lot of money to begin with, are the ones picking up the names on the school's angel tree, buying lunches in a pinch, finding clothes for these kids.
"People here really work with their heart. They give a lot of themselves," Smith said. "They do a lot of things on their time and out of their own pocket that'll go unknown."
But now you do know. At Grissom, they give their time, money and hearts to their students. They'll even give them the shirts off their backs.