The homeless families speaking out against the Baltimore school system with claims that children "have been denied transportation to school and been stigmatized because they couldn't afford field trips and uniforms" are finally getting some attention, but the problems these children face are far more complex. ("Baltimore school system sued over homeless students," Sept. 22).
Understanding the needs of homeless families when it comes to the routine of sending a child to school is something The Ark Preschool for Homeless Children has worked to anticipate for years. The Ark Preschool, a program of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland, is currently located in, but not directly affiliated with, a Baltimore City public school. For more than 20 years, The Ark has worked with homeless families in Baltimore City providing school readiness in an accredited preschool environment and a variety of wrap-around services to aid families in crisis.
With the goal of regular attendance for children, The Ark has had to implement its own transportation system: a privately-funded van, provided through a partnership with Action in Maturity, picks up the 3- and 4-year-olds from shelters and drops them off again after school. That's an hour-long trek through downtown Baltimore traffic each way. The Ark supplies everything from toothbrushes to clean clothes to bus passes for family members trying to attend job interviews, all so the little ones can attend daily preschool in a calm, safe environment.
The Ark also provides field trips so that students can experience enrichment activities such as nature walks and farm visits. These field trips are free of charge to families. Regular dental check-ups and screenings for vision and hearing, provided by Baltimore City's Health Department, and speech screenings by Ark staff are conducted to help identify problems early on and resources are secured to address these. Every Ark student receives breakfast, lunch and a snack as well as quiet rest time. Families moving into permanent housing receive help securing furniture, boxes of food and other necessities to aid the transition and help make a house a home.
The state-accredited preschool's curriculum focuses on helping these young people be school-ready despite the overwhelming evidence that children born into poverty face crippling barriers to learning and development. Over the years, The Ark has identified and addressed a number of those barriers — transportation, adequate health care, nutrition and a calm, child-focused environment — to help even the score for preschool-aged children.
The Ark is privately funded through foundations, faith communities and individuals. It has a fully-accredited staff leveraged by talented volunteers who are on-hand daily to assist.
If the city in fact wishes to "increase its focus on and strengthe[n] the services provided to homeless students," it should be prepared to address a multitude of complex issues. Transportation and school uniforms are only the beginning when it comes to the barriers that families in crisis face every day.
Nancy Fenton, Baltimore
The writer is acting executive director of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland.