MPS staffer’s mission is keeping homeless students in school

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The McKinney-Vento Act, passed in 1987, mandates that all school districts must help homeless children stay at their enrolled school, even if they are living in temporary housing outside of their attendance area.

“It’s almost December, and in the first four months of school, we’ve had families who have moved five or six times,” says Margo Hurrie of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). “Imaging if this [McKinney-Vento] law wasn’t in place: [The children of these families] may [have] had to change schools five or six times, and that would severely delay their education.”

As the MPS Shelter Office Coordinator, Hurrie has helped thousands of children receive their full educational needs during unsettling times. Prominently placed just above her office desk at People Serving People, a 100-room downtown housing shelter located just a block away from the Metrodome, is a photo collage full of smiling children of all ages. “I have known some of the families for 15-17 years,” she says proudly.

Since she joined MPS in 1991, Hurrie says she has seen a drastic increase in the number of homeless children she works with throughout the city. “When I was hired as an assistant in the office, we were able to find 50 homeless children.

Last year, we had over 5,000 [children] at 17 different shelters. Some of that is because more shelters have been built, and some of it is because a lot of the safety-net monies that [were] used to help people find housing when they lost it [had] been taken away during the Republican years.”

Hurrie estimates that last year at least 93 percent of the children she worked with were children of color.

Keeping these children uninterrupted in school is her top priority, says Hurrie: “We think the righteous thing to do is that no matter how unstable the family’s living situation is, we try to keep the kids stable in their home schools. Even if [the] whole rest of their world is tipping upside down, at least they know they are going to school [to] see their same teachers and friends.”

With the current economic downturn, her job is even more challenging, continues Hurrie. “We are using an overflow building, a hotel, as a shelter right now because the shelters have been running full for at least a year. The other thing is that we are seeing even more working families – folks who are out there working and been in their homes for 10, 12 years, and got foreclosed on, lost their job or somehow got hit by the economic circumstances that has been going on. These are the folks we didn’t see in the shelters before.

“Right now, I can see it continually get[ting] pretty bad,” she surmises. “Do I think it will get better in the future? It has to.”

Dispelling typical beliefs, families living in shelters aren’t just “folks who hit rock bottom,” she quickly adds. “We’ve had people with master’s degrees.

We’ve had people who are current Minneapolis Public Schools employees with their families. We have people with jobs here all the time. We’ve got parents in their 40s and 50s here with kids. We’ve got young kids here with kids. There is the stereotype [of the homeless] but that is not the reality.”

She also works with “unaccompanied youths” – high school teenagers. They might have lost their living arrangements because a relative’s situation has changed, “and so suddenly [the student] is on the streets. That isn’t the only reason an unaccompanied youth becomes homeless. Even though their numbers are the highest, they are in some of the worst situations because there are very few shelters for them,” explains Hurrie.

As expected, being homeless pays an emotional toll on children.

“As an adult, can you imagine not knowing where you are going to lay your head tonight – just imagine if you’re a kid, and you see your mom and dad going through the stress, see the tears and the worry,” Hurrie observed. “There’re kids that act out behaviorally in a negative way. There are kids that are super resilient and they just shine [academically]. There are kids that become very clingy – they already are sitting on my lap, hugging my neck and holding on tight, even though we just met.”

And there are some kids who have gotten used to being homeless, says Hurrie. “Unfortunately, there are some families who have been homeless for a long time, and those kids maybe aren’t as scared because they have become so accustomed to moving again.”

In her job, Hurrie wears multiple hats: She arranges regular transportation for students to get back and forth to school, and she helps register children in schools for those families new to Minneapolis.

“That child needs to be in school, and then we work on getting the paperwork afterwards,” she points out. “You are their friend if they need to cry. You’re their social worker if they need resources. You’re their parent if they need to get to school and in shape on their attendance and their behavior. You’re just there and try to be whatever they need because they need something different all the time.”

Hurrie recently was honored by the National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) during its annual conference in Denver on November 15. She was named Outstanding Individual Working in a Program Serving Homeless Students for 2009.

There are literally thousands of people doing what she does, claims Hurrie. “I think there is a passion with people who work with homelessness or in the homelessness arena. You just put in the extra hours and do what you have to do – the job never ends. There are so many wonderful people you meet, and great families to work with. To see these kids grow and turn into productive citizens that give back to their community – I get all the reward I need from the job.”

Finally, the homeless “are people – it is not us versus them,” concludes Hurrie. “So it is going to take us who are lucky enough to have homes to reach out to them, because I don’t think they are going to reach out for help because it is embarrassing.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.