Diane Gibson with her grandsons: "I'm grateful to Madison. We wouldn't have this in Chicago."
Diane Gibson's first eight months in Madison were a far cry from her life in Chicago. Gibson, 54, worked the night shift at a busy hospital on Chicago's south side. She was raising her grandson, Treveon Thurman, with her partner of 25 years, and the three lived together in a sunny two-bedroom apartment. Gibson always paid their rent on time and had enough extra income to buy Treveon, then 6, Fisher-Price toys and Baby Einstein videos.
When her partner suffered a heart attack in 2006, Gibson quit her job to take care of him. The trio survived on Smith's disability checks and money Gibson withdrew from her pension. Within a year, she could no longer pay rent.
Gibson called her brother in Madison. The city was a great place to raise kids, he told her. She and Treveon could live with him until they got on her feet.
But when staying with her brother fell through, Gibson and Treveon were newly-homeless and on their own. They went to the Salvation Army. Days after their arrival at the shelter, Gibson was approached by Amy Noble, a social worker in the Madison Metropolitan School District.
Noble works in the Transition Education Program, which serves the needs of homeless students in Madison. Within a week, Noble enrolled Treveon in TEP and a first grade class at Lapham Elementary School. For the next eight months, Gibson, Treveon and Tavis, Treveon's four-year-old brother who followed after their arrival, lived at the Salvation Army, the YWCA, and in local churches.
"I tried to keep it like a home environment, even though we weren't at home," Gibson says. "It's not about where you're living at. It's how you make yourself feel about where you are at the time."
TEP provided stability during the family's time of high mobility. Noble was their central point of contact, making sure Treveon attended school and had the clothes and supplies he needed.
Now in its 20th year, TEP has been nationally recognized for its support of homeless children. The program is one of the only school-based initiatives in the country that provides direct support to homeless students and has several full-time district-wide staff. But the TEP staff faces new challenges this year, including unprecedented enrollment numbers and fewer donations from the community. The program has also shifted to a new staff structure aimed at serving homeless students throughout the district, but the staff said it's too soon to know if the reorganization will allow them to reach more students.
"No stone unturned"
In a low-ceilinged room at Lowell Elementary School, folders and art supplies lie scattered across shelves and tables. Kids' drawings and cartoons are taped to the walls. A coffee mug painted with hearts sits atop a stack of files. Against one wall stands a row of metal lockers covered with inspirational posters: "Everyone smiles in the same language," says one.
In the middle of the cheery clutter sit four desks, four women and four phones-one of which is nearly always ringing.
This is the TEP office. Noble sits hunched over her desk, the phone cupped to her ear. She is speaking to a school staff member about a homeless child.
"The basics she needs for school, we'll jump on that," she says, scribbling on a notepad. The frames of her glasses sparkle with rhinestones. "The extra things she needs ... we want to help with that, too."
The phone calls come from across the city: from school social workers and psychologists, from the directors of the Salvation Army and the YWCA. And the calls come from parents and families, too-people in crisis, who have lost their homes or are about to, and who are counting on TEP for help.
In 1989, the Madison school district created TEP in response to a 1986 federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The law guarantees homeless children the right to immediate enrollment in public schools. It also ensures they may continue attending the school where they enroll, even if they move out of the district.
TEP's funding has remained consistent in recent years, despite fluctuations in the district's overall budget. Currently TEP receives $705,000 annually from the Department of Student Services and Alternative Education budget, over half of which is allocated to transportation. This year, the program also received $253,400 from Title 1 of the No Child Left Behind Act, which allocates funds to the education of homeless students. TEP's budget this year also includes $58,000 from a three-year McKinney-Vento federal grant and $21,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
When a student enrolls in TEP, the staff's first step is to make sure the student is enrolled in school. The TEP staff also arranges the student's transportation to school and ensures he or she has the necessities: clothes, hygiene products, supplies for school. If students or their families require other support, including health care, the staff connects them with the resources they need. The TEP staff also visits schools throughout the district, educating teachers and staff about homelessness.
Noble and her colleagues, Jani Koester and Shannon Stevens, have over 30 years' combined experience working with homeless families and children. Koester has been with TEP since its inception, working as a teacher and advocating on behalf of homeless students and families. Noble and Stevens worked as social workers in the Madison school district before joining TEP as full-time staff.
TEP has earned national recognition for its support of homeless students. In 2004 the staff received an award from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
"They have a lot of knowledge," Nancy Yoder, the district's director of student services and alternative education, says. "They're the kind of staff who will leave no stone unturned."
"Every issue has been magnified"
The TEP staff faced this year's first test when program enrollment numbers reached a new high. As of Nov. 6, 592 students have been identified as homeless and received support from TEP.
That's nearly 40 percent more students identified than at the same time last year. Six years ago, TEP enrolled fewer than 500 students during the entire school year.
The TEP staff attributes the increase in part to a new method of locating homeless students. This year, every family in the district received a folder at registration containing a form to self-identify as homeless.
The economic downturn has also boosted the number of students enrolled in TEP.
"It's caught up with us," Koester says. "The family who lost their home in Janesville is now filtering to Madison. Every issue has been magnified. It's really hitting our poor mobile families hard."
The recession is affecting more than TEP's enrollment numbers. Donations have thinned in recent months, as middle-class families-traditionally TEP's biggest donors-have grappled with the effects of the downturn. Koester is optimistic, however, about the community's committed support.
Bins of shoes ready for donation still line a wall of the TEP work space, and themed collections, such as hygiene items or school supplies, steadily make their way to the TEP office thanks to the efforts of local clubs. A faithful knitter's group works each year to provide children with handmade mittens, scarves and hats to face the cold winter.
"It's a very giving community," Koester says. "Is it smaller than before? In some aspects, absolutely. Very much so. But it's still there ... people are still digging down to the bottom of their pockets and helping out."
Gibson felt that generosity when Noble gave her clothing and school supplies for Treveon. But most important, Gibson says, was the support Noble provided for Treveon's multiple behavioral disorders. In Chicago, Treveon wasn't able to see a psychiatrist, had been misdiagnosed and prescribed a too-potent dosage of Ritalin. Noble scheduled appointments with a psychiatrist in Madison and arranged for him to meet with a social worker and a therapist.
"Amy is my heart," Gibson says.
"They know who to go to"
A restructured staff model brings additional uncertainty for TEP this year. Now sharing an office are four full-time staff-Noble, Koester, Stevens and administrative assistant Sandra Mell-who all previously worked in separate locations. Noble worked full-time for TEP, while Koester and Stevens split their responsibilities between district-wide support, teaching and counseling. Yoder says the goal of the reorganization is to serve homeless students across Madison, not just those attending schools located near the city's homeless shelters.
"We have homeless students across the district," Noble says. "Having staff in only a few schools was inequitable to meeting those needs."
Koester says it's too early to know if the district-wide focus is better serving students.
"I think we're still feeling our way through that," Koester says. "It's only been a couple months. We're certainly reaching more staff. So in that aspect, it's a ripple."
This year's new challenges have offered the nationally-recognized program opportunities to raise awareness throughout the district. Koester says teachers are asking more questions about students in TEP, their rights and the resources available to help them. And because their new structure is more centralized, she says, the TEP staff has more chances to educate faculty and staff. Next semester TEP is offering an after-school course about family mobility. Koester expects the class to be well-attended.
Yoder says the program's strongest resource is the network of support the TEP staff has established to send families to the right place for what they need.
"They know who to go to," Yoder says. "They have made a lot of connections in the community."
"He's a different child"
Gibson was persistent in her search for permanent housing, finally securing an apartment for herself and her grandsons in April 2009. The best part of living there?
"You," Treveon says, pointing to his grandmother.
"He's a different child," Gibson says, citing big changes in Treveon's behavior since Noble stepped in. Gibson organizes monthly meetings where she consults with the teachers, case manager and other specialists involved in Treveon's life.
"I'm grateful to Madison," she says. "We wouldn't have this in Chicago."
Although she hasn't spoken to Noble since June, Gibson says she can call her anytime.
"Amy's one-of-a-kind," Gibson says. "I didn't know anyone. She was just there for me."
Gibson points to a framed portrait of her and her grandsons. "She took that picture of us," Gibson says. "That was taken at Lapham."
Gibson is making education a priority for her grandsons. Treveon loves math and is thriving in several after-school programs. After graduating from second grade next spring, he will move to Marquette Elementary School.
TEP staffers say one of the greatest rewards of the program is seeing students transition successfully into schools. During her 20-year career as a TEP teacher, Koester says she occasionally runs into former students.
"They don't always remember my name, but they'll remember who I am and where I worked," she says. "I like seeing a family's name and saying, 'Oh my Gosh, they made it to high school.' Seeing kids who made it through the system ... that's a real high for me."