Meet Shianne Sadler — an eighth grader at Lincoln Junior High School in La Salle.
Shianne’s concerns today are much the same as her closest girlfriends: homework, high school next fall, and boys.
But Shianne has another; one she keeps secret.
She and her mother are homeless — a reality the 14-year-old shares with hundreds of other local schoolchildren.
“I think it’s something that’s been kind of hidden in the Illinois Valley,” said Peru Elementary superintendent Mark Cross. “It’s hard for a family and their kids to focus on educational needs when they’re worried about where they are going to stay next or even eat that night.”
There were 320 students classified as homeless attending 34 of the 41 school districts in La Salle, Bureau and Putnam counties, according to 2013 Illinois School District Report Cards reviewed by the NewsTribune. Most of those students — 259 in total — are in elementary school just like Shianne.
The numbers reveal a troubling truth: no matter if the school district is poor or wealthy, urban or rural, there are likely homeless children inside every local school building.
This is the first year Illinois State Board of Education has required school districts to report homeless student demographics in annual report cards. And the results have shattered commonly-held stereotypes held by local school officials.
For example, nearly 8 percent of Oglesby Elementary School District’s entire student population is homeless. That’s nearly one of 10 students and the most by percentage in the Illinois Valley.
In comparison, traditionally less wealthy school districts such as DePue Elementary and La Salle Elementary districts registered homeless pupil populations under 1 percent.
In terms of pure totals, Mendota Elementary topped the list with 59 homeless students. That’s the equivalent of two full classes with a few students leftover.
Homeless doesn’t always mean homeless. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act — a federal grant program passed in 1987 that directs federal funding to aid homeless students — defines homeless children using any of six criteria that include children sharing housing due to economic hardship, living in alternative accommodations such as hotels, cars or campgrounds, or awaiting foster care placement.
For instance, Cross said there was a student in his district that lived with his mother inside a car in a northern Peru parking lot.
But that is an extreme example. Most local school officials say the Illinois Valley’s population of homeless students can be better classified as those sharing housing with family members or “doubling up” as opposed to the old adage of “living under a bridge.”
Take the Sadlers as another example. During the winter months they live at Public Action to Deliver Shelter in Peru, and like some other students that also live there, are incredibly grateful that it exists.
“This is home,” said Melodie Sadler, Shianne’s mother. “All of our possessions, which are mostly her clothes, are in this building. We have nobody else around here. It’s just me and her.”
Marie Guillo is a truancy caseworker for La Salle County Regional Office of Education. She said school officials try to look at the stability of the home to make a homeless classification. She said some cases are more obvious than others.
“When they tell us they lost their job and are doubling up with family or friends for housing we would make that homeless determination,” she said. “But sometimes, families or friends choose to double up in order to save money so it’s difficult to determine.”
The doubling-up effect is why Oglesby elementary schools have such a high population of homeless students, said the district’s social worker and homeless student liaison Kelly Legrenzi.
“For this academic year, I would say 99 percent of our homeless students are doubled-up, meaning they are living with aunts, uncles, grandmas and so on,” she said. “It’s a rarity when we have someone living in a hotel room.”
When Oglesby school officials learn one of their students is homeless the entire staff pitches in to help.
While keeping the student anonymous, Legrenzi will send out a universal email to staff members stating a student and their family are without certain needs such as clothing, food or cash.
Meanwhile, Legrenzi or school nurse Mary Newcomer direct the parents to outside agencies that can assist them such as PADS or Tri-County Opportunities Council.
“It’s amazing when everyone pitches in,” she said. “We try to empower the parents to get back on their feet and get the kids whatever it is they need.
“We want the kids to feel safe and supported at all times despite their circumstances at home and giving is a natural concept in our buildings whether the student is homeless or low-income and needing a little help,” Legrenzi said.
A community problem
Illinois school district report cards revealed a marked difference between the numbers of homeless elementary students compared to high school students.
Homeless elementary students outnumbered homeless high school students by roughly four-to-one.
The reason for the large discrepancy is that high school students aren’t forthcoming about their living arrangements.
“If a high school student doesn’t want you to find out they’re homeless you’ll never know about it,” Guillo said, “but a young child might slip up and mention they slept in the car last night.”
Overall, the goal of identifying homeless students is to better direct state grant money to those districts that need it most, Guillo said.
And for people in her position, the numbers are another tool to make sure struggling families do not have children with gaps in their education.
“Homeless students are a community problem. There’s nothing we can do but encourage them to get on housing lists,” she said. “We try to stay in contact and prevent gaps in their education as much as possible because they tend to move around a lot.”
Stats and consequences
Homeless students are hard to track. And that makes it difficult to direct grant reimbursements to schools with many homeless pupils.
Important data points such as overall student populations and the number of transient students within a district change throughout the school year. Oglesby Elementary may have the highest percentage one month, but by the end of the semester it could be another school district.
And no matter the reason it will always be difficult for a proud parent to embarrassingly admit they cannot provide adequate housing for their child. Many choose to lie during registration, so there may be more than what the data shows.
“There’s probably a lot of underreporting out there,” Guillo said. “But the younger ones will often slip up and say something that we’ll need to look into.”
Timing affects the truth as well. While Illinois State Board of Education now requires the data on its district report cards, it still only requires data at one point in time during a given school year, leaving number-crunchers in Springfield and elsewhere with a snapshot at best.
These less-than-scientific documentation methods cause headaches for school administrators that must make special accommodations to new homeless students entering their school districts.
Sometimes that involves the expense of redirecting bus routes each time a transient family moves within the district in search of stable shelter. Sometimes superintendents give families free fuel cards to drive their child to school to save money and convenience but that’s still not enough.
La Salle Elementary superintendent Dan Marenda said a homeless child moved with his father into the school district recently. Their new home was only three blocks from school. But due to complicated state laws about funding transient students, the child’s former school district and La Salle had to split transportation costs which included redirecting bus routes to pick up the child as opposed to him or her walking the three blocks to school.
“They (education policymakers) spend all of their time analyzing data, but in many ways I think they are missing the boat completely,” he said. “If you’re a wealthy district, you have resources. But for us, it’s different.”
One stable constant
The school bus makes its first stop at the PADS shelter every morning. Shianne said she likes the peace and quiet — a welcome reprieve from sleeping in a room full of snoring adults in the bunk beds that surround her each night.
“My grades aren’t affected but my sleep sure is,” she says. “It gets really stressful at times.”
When Shianne is at school, Melodie walks from business to business in Peru’s northside shopping district. PADS officials do not allow people to stay at the shelter during the day except under extreme weather circumstances. So she does a lot of walking in the cold, fruitlessly applying for the same jobs over and over again, only to be continually overlooked.
“I try not to go too far because I want to be there when Shianne gets home from school,” she said. “But we keep hoping and praying for an open door. Unfortunately, none of the agencies around here seem to be able to help. I’m not downing anyone, but no one has been any help.”
Shianne keeps her living situation a secret from most of her peers. Only teachers, school administrators and her best friends know where she sleeps at night. And that’s mostly because there’s a certain boy she would like to impress.
“I would just die and my world would be ruined if he found out,” she exclaimed.
Boys aside, school for Shianne means stability — a place where she can do normal things, participate in extracurricular activities, and look forward to picking out her first formal dress for a school dance as a freshman next fall.
“School is a big focus for her and it’s very important,” Melodie said. “It’s the one stable constant in her life and she’d always rather be there. It’s an escape for her — a positive escape from the reality.”
Kevin Caufield can be reached at (815) 220-6932 or firstname.lastname@example.org.