Sometime last November Sheila Jackson became homeless. She lost her lodgings in the suburbs and after several months wound up in a shelter on the far south side. All the while her twin kindergartners were missing school. Now she and public-school officials are locked in a bitter legal dispute over the system’s treatment of homeless children.

Jackson and her lawyers contend that school officials violated federal and state law by not allowing her children to enroll in the school closest to the shelter. “The Jackson family is not alone,” says Rene Heybach, a lawyer for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, which is suing the school system on behalf of Jackson and other homeless families. “The schools have the capacity to take care of homeless children, and they aren’t doing it.”

School officials counter by accusing the Legal Assistance Foundation of exploiting a complicated issue for publicity and funding. “We should get credit for what we’ve done for homeless children, not negative stories in the newspapers,” says LaVerne Davis-Sams, administrator of the board’s homeless-education program. “They need funding, so they go after us. Their claims are baseless. We don’t want any kids to fall through the cracks. But we’re a system with 400,000 students, in excess of 60 high schools and 400 grade schools. This is another case of people wanting the system to do too much.”

At issue are the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 homeless children in Chicago. In 1987 the U.S. Congress passed the McKinney Act, which requires states receiving federal money for the education of homeless children to make certain provisions, including revising residency requirements so that homeless children can either remain in their old school, and be transported if necessary, or be enrolled in the school closest to where they are staying.

Heybach contends that the Chicago Public Schools receive McKinney Act funds even though they have not met its requirements. “We work with homeless women and children all the time. They are our clients. We knew from what they were experiencing that the system was flawed.” To get a better understanding of the problem, she says, her organization received a grant to commission a study by child advocate Bernardine Dohrn.

Dohrn’s report, “A Long Way From Home: Chicago’s Homeless Children and the Schools,” offers a dozen or so chilling stories of uprooted children being bounced from school to school. It’s clearly a chronic problem for the system, she writes, because its official annual turnover rate is 40.3 percent. That means that about 13 of 30 children in, say, a second-grade classroom will “have transferred to another school or be missing school before the end of the year.” She also reports that homeless children often transfer in and out of three or four schools a year as they move back and forth between family and friends before winding up in a shelter.

“The consequences of these problems are obvious and unrelenting: truancy, school failures and drop-outs,” Dohrn concludes. “Homeless children who miss significant amounts of schooling or transfer repeatedly in a given year are held back a grade, fail to obtain credit for time served in school, lose hope and are on a track of school failure. The personal devastation, particularly for a child trying to hold on to something familiar and with a future, is enormous. The social cost is calamitous.”

Dohrn’s team of investigators interviewed 142 families, including 588 children, at 20 shelters throughout the city last year. “Seventy-five percent of the school-age children of families interviewed attended three or more schools during the 1990-1991 school year,” she writes. “Twenty-seven children were not currently enrolled in school and approximately one-third of the families indicated that a child had missed more than two weeks of school during the year due to factors involving the family’s moves.”

One parent, whom Dohrn calls Mrs. Shaw, “begged for help with her daughters’ schooling. The girls, she reported, were crying every morning, refusing to attend the local school, humiliated by having to go there, and longing for their home school which they had attended for six years.”

Dohrn writes that she called the home school on Shaw’s behalf and “was told bruskly that these girls were no longer eligible to be students at the home school because they resided out of district.” Eventually the old school reenrolled the Shaw girls after Dohrn wrote and called several school officials.

Dohrn’s report convinced Heybach and her associate Julie Biehl that school officials were systematically failing to notify homeless parents of their rights. “The law says that the best interest of the child should be accounted for,” says Biehl. “But that’s not what happens. What happens is that children get lost or they’re ignored. No one tells parents, “Listen, you have the right to remain in this school. Or you should have access to transportation.’ And when parents ask questions, they are rebuffed. Oh sure, when we call up on behalf of this or that client, the schools will be accommodating. We don’t want to have to sue the public schools. And homeless people should not need a lawyer to obtain their fundamental right to education.”

But according to Biehl, Sheila Jackson, who could not be reached for comment because she does not have a telephone and the operators of her shelter would not take phone messages, needed a lawyer after she tried to enroll her twins at the grade school close to the shelter where they were living. “When they tried to enroll at Oglesby, they were turned away,” Biehl says. “The staff told them the school was overcrowded. They weren’t told that they could go back to their old school. They lost a half year of kindergarten.”

Similar problems were cited by the other parents named as plaintiffs in the suit the Legal Assistance Foundation filed against the school system, which demands that the system notify parents of their rights under the McKinney Act. “It’s not as though we pulled these complaints out of the air,” says Heybach. “We’ve been to the board dozens of times on behalf of various clients. We have [Dohrn’s] report. Still they refuse to make systemic changes. They won’t listen to us. Their basic attitude is that we’re not credible. The board’s lawyers told me that we’re obnoxious and that they don’t believe us about the incidents. We gave him specific cases, and he just denied them. He said they’re not true. You have to understand that these people believe they run a great school system. They think they’re doing wonderful things for homeless kids, and they are insulted when we point out that there are other things they might do.”

School officials agree that the number of homeless children in the area is growing. But they point out that the emotional, bureaucratic, and financial task of helping homeless children is all but left to Chicago’s public schools. Private and parochial schools, with their restrictive enrollments, have largely turned their backs on them. And no suburb has a homeless population that comes close to matching the city’s. School officials say that for their efforts they receive all of $40,000 in federal funds (though they have applied for an $800,000 federal grant for next year).

“I think we do a damn good job with the resources we have,” says Davis-Sams. “We put out a booklet that is for all the staff, informing them of the homeless act and requesting their assistance. We have a hot line. Call 535-8257 if you know of any homeless children, and we’ll give you the appropriate information. We have also posted posters in neighborhoods, schools, and shelters all over the city–and these are big, bright posters–saying please call our hot line and let us know where homeless children are. We have aired public-service announcements on all the channels, including the Spanish ones.

“We have workshops with educators. We have in-service training sessions in the schools. Other states have called us saying, “We hear you’re doing great things.’ We were on the Today show. Connie Chung did a segment on us. We were on Fox 32. These people [Legal Assistance] are just being unreasonable.”

Davis-Sams charges that almost every incident in the lawsuit has been distorted by the foundation lawyers. “In the case of the Oglesby school, officials told that mother that the kindergarten classes were overcrowded. The kindergarten classes had 33 and 32 students, and the union limit is 28. The teacher could not take any more. If they brought a union grievance, we would lose. So [Jackson] was referred to another school near Oglesby. But she didn’t want to go there. So she didn’t. Can I help that? We told her of her rights, and she didn’t exercise them. Is that our fault? As a courtesy to her I arranged for her children to attend summer schools.”

Furthermore, says Davis-Sams, the foundation’s proposal to transport homeless children throughout the city would overwhelm a system that is already desperate for funds. “They wanted us to send a cab to send students from 3200 east on 92nd Street to Foreman High School, which is on the far northwest side. The woman had moved to a shelter on the far southeast side, and they said she needed cab fare because it’s too long to be on a bus. Now that’s unreasonable. I’m not going to disobey the law, but I have to be mindful of our own budgetary restrictions.

“The law says that we must give homeless kids a choice where to attend that school which is in their best interest to attend. Well, it is not in the best interest of a kindergartner to go from 3100 east on 92nd to a school at 7019 N. Ashland–which was what Legal Assistance wanted us to do in another case. And they want us to hook that kid into our transportation system to do it. That’s ridiculous. We do have bus lines, but we can’t hook them up to all the shelters in the city. There are hundreds of facilities out there. It would be a planning nightmare.”

Heybach maintains that Davis-Sams has exaggerated the difficulties of integrating homeless children into the system’s larger busing network. It’s yet another dispute in a case that may spend years in the courts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.