Personal needs often outweigh academics

By Emily Lane/The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ – Educators and administrators at the Natchez-Adams School District are charged with educating all children in Adams County, but sometimes their call of duty stretches off the chalkboard.
With nearly 300 students identified as homeless, NASD educators understand that the personal and emotional needs of those children often precede academic learning.
“They’re falling behind not because they cannot learn but because of the instability of their environment,” said Geraldine Geyen, NASD homeless liaison.
NASD Federal Programs Director Marilyn Alexander-Turner said every time a child changes schools or undergoes major instability the child will lose four to six months of academic progress.
For homeless children in a rural environment life is often a series of moves – two nights with grandma, the next with an aunt, three days with a friend, maybe a night in the car.
Though homeless children in Adams County typically have a roof over their heads, the roof may also be sheltering a number of other people, creating cramped sleeping quarters, noisy nights and limited food.
Instability at home can cause a lack of concentration, and if the situation remains unstable the problem can carry a long-term impact, Alexander-Turner said.
McLaurin Elementary School Guidance Counselor Monica King said simple factors like getting enough sleep and food can affect the way children experience the classroom.
Morgantown Elementary School counselor Mary Washington agreed.
“They come to school sleepy, hungry, and that really has a negative impact on kids,” Washington said.
But the district does seek federal funding to help homeless children where it can.
For instance, many children come to school without the required uniform or even notebooks for work.
Uniforms and school supplies are likely low-priority items for a mother trying to feed three children, but they are essentials to appropriate learning, educators say.
For the last 10 years, the Natchez-Adams School District has received a grant through the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which softens the burden of attending school for homeless children.
Among other things, the $37,000 grant provides homeless children with uniforms and school supplies.
The Thursday before Christmas break Washington took it upon herself to deliver the uniforms and other clothes to children who received the services. She makes home deliveries because some children can get embarrassed to carry the clothes on the school bus to wherever happens to be home that night.
And to a child, looking like and having the things their peers have is often the first step in leveling the playing field and opening the door for learning.
“At this age (fitting in) can be more important than family,” Morgantown Elementary School Principal Alyson Bequette said.
Of the 80 children receiving services from the McKinney-Vento Act, most of them are in grades three to nine, Geyen said.
In 2010, NASD received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in addition to the McKinney-Vento grant to cater to homelessness issues, but those funds will not be available for the upcoming school year.
NASD Business Manager Margaret Parson said the state Legislature continues to under-fund the district’s budget as they increase a number of demands that cost money.
And the services schools can provide are always tied to the laws and the lawmakers that govern them and appropriate their funds.