TPS homeless student program gives basics to ensure education
The general populace is largely unaware that Tecumseh Public Schools serves and educates 48 homeless students, but that is because most people’s idea of a homeless student is a child sleeping in a shelter or an abandoned car. In truth, that is only one definition in a much broader spectrum of children living in a condition of economic straits that qualify them for the services provided by Pam Oren, who is the go-to person for students who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
“The definition of a homeless student is based solely on the living situation of the student, and there are a number of factors that qualify a student for assistance under the McKinney-Vento Act, which lays out the guidelines,” said Oren.
The assistance provided by the McKinney-Vento Act, which was signed into law by President Ronald Regan in 1987, is funded federally, but administered locally, and the qualifications for the designation “homeless student” include students who are: awaiting foster parents; sharing housing (doubled-up with another family); living in a shelter, motel, or campground; or living in substandard housing such as a car, abandoned building, or bus station.
“In reality, we see very few actual homeless students, but there are many who need assistance under the Act, and the assistance that I help provide, in conjunction with the schools and many other donating agencies, goes way beyond free lunches,” said Oren. “I am a licensed professional counselor, and part of my job is to provide for the student’s emotional welfare as well as his or her physical welfare. But, I have a lot of allies in this work to help these students get the education they are entitled to.”
Oren said that she does not like for the students to think of her as a counselor, although she is one. “I tell them, ‘I am your advocate, and I can help you with everything from school finances to sports fees.’” Oren has been a licensed counselor for 20 years and was a teacher for 19 years, so she knows where to go to get help for her students, and she is grateful to the many organizations and individuals that go the extra mile to help her in her efforts.
“The schools are very cooperative,” Oren said. “They provide me with office space in the high school and middle school, and the school counselors and teachers help me with one of the hardest parts of my job, which is identifying students who need help.” Although she is a physical presence in the high school and middle school, she also assists students in all of the elementary schools, where she is even more dependent on keen observation by staff to determine those students in need of help. Understandably, students do not like to be known by their peers as receiving assistance because of the stigma it carries. “We make sure that all help is kept strictly confidential,” she said.
Although Oren’s position is federally funded, monetary disbursement for students’ needs is administered through the school district by executive assistant to the superintendent Teri Hoeft, but nonprofit organizations and local service clubs provide help in a wide variety of ways.
A recent situation illustrates how the web of benevolence weaves through the community. Oren told of a boy who was in need of eyeglasses. Oren put him in contact with the local Lions Club, a national civic organization that specializes in helping people with sight-related problems. “They arranged an appointment with an optometrist and paid for his glasses,” she said.
The Tecumseh Service Club is another strong ally, providing both food and clothing, with the help of donors such as Busch’s, which recently donated food to the club, some of which will be used for the local adopt-a-family Christmas project and some of which will be distributed throughout the year to the needy. The store also donated food cards, which will be distributed to homeless students.
Another key player in helping the students is the New Hope Thrift Shop, which was recently opened by Anita Wolf on North Pearl Street. The shop opens its doors to homeless students to allow them to shop for free for clothing and other items that they need.
Oren said that, additional help comes from many local sources, including Communities In Schools of the Tecumseh Area, which supplements the assistance provided by the schools, and ProMedica, which is one of the many adopt-a-family corporate participants.
One of the primary goals of everyone involved with the homeless students is education, of course, but there are many aspects of learning that go beyond what is provided in textbooks. The McKinney-Vento Act, and those like Oren who implement it, provide the things that make the education and eventual graduation possible, such as assuring transportation, fees, clothing, food, and more. The Act ensures homeless children transportation to and from school, free of charge, allowing them to attend their school of origin (last school enrolled in) regardless of what district the family resides in.
Besides the taking care of day-to-day living necessities and providing counseling, when needed, homeless program coordinators try to make life as normal as possible under the difficult circumstances that displaced students find themselves in. “We strive to make them feel as normal as possible,” Oren said, “including making sure that every student has a Christmas.”