Homeless children get school help Lessons go beyond math and reading

June 15, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Cathy Henry travels the far reaches of Howard County -- one of the wealthiest counties in the nation -- to tutor homeless children, and her heart can't help but tug for them.

They live in shelters and, like their parents, are unsure of their future. They are transient and live out of suitcases, often in cramped rooms. School, for most, is the last of their worries and an area in which all too often they fall behind.

"The hardest part is not trying to get too emotionally involved, because you see so many heart-wrenching children, so many stories of misfortune," she says.

Her job is two-fold: help bring remedial students up to speed in their schoolwork, and prepare others, such as pre-schoolers, for school. She's in constant contact with teachers, asking what they're covering in classes so she can match her lessons and telling them where her students need help.

She even stays in contact with children whose families eventually find homes -- like brown-haired twins Kevin and Keith Barnes, who recently moved out of the Grassroots shelter in Columbia into a church-sponsored home.

Although the homeless problem in Howard is not as prevalent as in major cities or even other counties, "even if we have only 50 children who are coming from a shelter, we don't want those children falling behind other children," said Peter Finck, a supervisor in the school's pupil personnel office.

"Children in shelters are typically below grade level compared with their schoolmates," he said. "We suspect students without tutoring help would be slipping back further because they change schools so often. Our hope is to at least avoid the slippage. If we could keep them on grade level, we would be successful."

It's hard for these children to do well in school because "some are from homes where a divorce is in process," said Ms. Henry. "Alcohol or drugs may be a problem. A lot of these things put a lot of emotional stress on children."

Ms. Henry works out of two locations under a $38,000 state grant the Department of Education is trying to renew today. She has a regular stream of kids at the Grassroots shelter, next to Atholton High School, where she has a room to hold class and a closet to stash coloring books, pens, papers and other materials.

She also works out of the Copper Stallion motel in Elkridge, where the county rents rooms for homeless families. Motel owners have provided her with a desk in an empty room, where one week she helped Christopher Zunner, 6, and Michael Gregg Jr., 5, learn numbers and ABCs. The half-brothers recently moved from Pennsylvania with their grandmother, parents and two little sisters to Maryland.

She played a game called "It's Pouring," in which Christopher and Michael match letters with pictures of caps, violins, telephones, cats and other objects. Christopher often led the game, teaching his younger brother about phonetics.

Ms. Henry, who tutored close to 40 homeless children this year, doesn't know if she'll see any of them again next week. They may be gone. "The hard part is you see them a month or two, then they move onto somewhere else," she says.

One youngster she helped for several months was a 10-year-old boy who was staying with his alcoholic mother until she lost custody of him. The youngster moved in with his father in Carroll County, but is now back in Howard with his mother. Ms. Henry often wonders about what happened to him.

"It's hard not to pick [children] up and bring them home and raise them yourself," she said.

Sometimes, it's not so much the lessons in math or English that are needed, but the lessons in self-esteem. One parent came up to her after a talk one day and asked Ms. Henry how she could build her children's self-esteem when she didn't have any herself.

Parents of children like the Barnes twins rave about the program. "Ms. Henry does an excellent job with the children," said Darlene Hourigan, their mother. "She goes out of her way to help them. Not only does she have a relationship with the children, but she also has relationship with their parents."

The twins have benefited from Ms. Henry's help -- especially in math, she said. "Being in a shelter was hard on [Kevin and Keith] because they had to leave their friends," she said. "They were taken away from friends from their old neighborhood."

Thirteen-year-old Carolyn Smith had moved to Maryland with her mother, an out-of-work legal secretary who was looking for a job. After weeks of staying at friends' houses and no luck finding a job, the two went to Grassroots five months ago for temporary shelter.

Carolyn's mother has since found a job and an apartment and they've moved out of Grassroots, but Carolyn still comes back for the tutoring. "I needed help in math, because my grades were failing," she said.

Her tutor, volunteer Ruth Rondon, says she's seen some great improvement. "Her attitude about herself has improved," Ms. Rondon said. "I guess she didn't feel she was capable."

Carolyn says she doesn't have to fret about the future anymore -- a great relief. "I used to worry at school and I couldn't concentrate," she said. "I wouldn't be able to fall asleep, and I'd fall asleep at school. I'm not as worried about where the next place is going to be, where the next money was coming from."

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