Ocean Avenue Elementary School in Portland has a large population of homeless students. To help support their needs Harvard Pilgrim recently provided the school with a $1,000 grant. At left is Bill Whitmore, a vice president at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, with Beverly Stevens, principal of the school. Contributed

PORTLAND — Beverly Stevens, principal at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, believes it’s crucial for schools to provide homeless students with a sense of stability and normalcy.

She should know. Ocean Avenue in the past academic year had 114 homeless students, or about 23 percent of its total enrollment of almost 500 students, up from 88 homeless students in the previous year.

To help the school better support its homeless students and their families, Harvard Pilgrim gave the school a $1,000 grant just before classes let out for the summer.

The money will be used to help provide clothing, school supplies and weekly food bags, which are just some of the many interventions Ocean Avenue Elementary employs to help homeless students feel more secure, Stevens said.

She said Ocean Avenue Elementary is one of three schools in the city that are assigned students from the family homeless shelter.

When children become homeless during the school year, Stevens said, the School Department’s transportation team works to help them stay at their original school, as long as it’s deemed to be in their best interest.

That means, she said, that even if the schools are not specifically assigned to receive homeless students, “a large majority of schools in (the city) also have students who are homeless.”

Stevens said families are considered homeless if they are living in a shelter, are doubled up with another family, or are without shelter due to a temporary loss of housing.

“There are many ways a student’s homelessness impacts their life,” she said, including a “loss of routine and stability. Changing schools also means a loss of friends and connections to teachers, along with a change in curriculum and learning a new (school culture).”

Stevens said Ocean Avenue Elementary is “tackling this problem in many ways.”

One of the first ways is to get a student into a classroom as soon as they’re registered. “This is to help shorten the gap in schooling and re-starting a sense of routine,” she said.

In addition, the entire family can access the school’s clothing closet and school supplies, as well as food from the Good Shepherd Food Bank on a weekly basis.

Stevens said homeless students are also welcomed by a peer when they get off the bus and are escorted to their correct classroom. Social work and school administrative staff are also on hand at the family homeless shelter two days a week to answer parent questions and provide overall support.

She said the school nurse also helps out by providing rides to and from medical appointments so a student won’t miss an entire day of school just to see the doctor.

Summer school programs are also key in helping a homeless student catch up and cover gaps in their learning, which is most often caused by attending a number of different schools or missing school entirely due to frequent moves, according to Stevens.

In addition, LearningWorks supports students in grades 2-5 with an extra nine hours of instruction each week after school, she said, and “we give students literacy and math screeners, which helps their teachers better understand what they know.”

Stevens also said “focused professional development” for the entire staff is important to understanding the range of issues and experiences homeless children often have to contend with on a daily basis.

Ocean Avenue Elementary also offers trauma and stress management groups run by school social workers.

Other interventions include a 30-day follow up meeting with parents to see how the transition is going and, new this past school year, a video designed to help students understand how “we do school” became available, Stevens said. “This includes how you get lunch, dispose of compost and recycling, rules for 4-Square, etc.”

“Above all,” she said, “we have a drop-everything-and-help mindset for these students.”

Stevens said the grant from Harvard Pilgrim would be primarily used to purchase clothing and shoes that rarely get donated to the clothes closet.

“This type of support makes a world of difference,” she said.


Comments are not available on this story.