The Jones family Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

In the last two years, 5-year-old Kymarria Gibbs has moved five times. She and her family lived with a relative in Indiana, moved to their own apartment while they were there, then landed at another relative’s home in Chicago. When that didn’t work out, they ended up at a homeless shelter on the South Side. Finally, in late February, the family got a subsidized apartment in Waukegan.

The frequent moves kept Kymarria out of preschool for the most part, although she was enrolled for a time in a Head Start in Indiana and a home-based child care center that serves homeless children. Since the family moved to Waukegan, the youngster spends most of her time playing with dolls and watching TV.

Her mother, Ikeda Jones, 23, says she is focused now on finding an elementary school for Kymarria, who turned 5 in March. “She’ll be ready for kindergarten in September,” Jones says. But with three other children to look after—two younger daughters and an infant son—and no car, Jones says she has not yet investigated preschools to enroll Kymarria in now, or an elementary school for the fall. 

“My aunt says she’s going to help me find a school for her and the other ones, but until then we just stay in the apartment,” says Jones.

Kymarria’s story illustrates the barriers to providing consistent early childhood education for children whose families are transient or homeless. More than 4,000 children under the age of 5 at some point lived in a Chicago shelter during 2007, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. (Figures for 2008 are not yet available.)

The Illinois Early Learning Council and other advocates of early education say that serving these children is a priority. Children who are homeless are more likely to experience a variety of academic problems, says a study released last year by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. They are more likely to score below grade level on standardized tests, to be retained and to require mental health services—problems that can be eased or headed off via preschool. And a report by the National Center for Homeless Education says that approximately 45 percent of homeless preschoolers have at least one major developmental delay and may develop behaviors such as insecurity, fear, distrust and irritability.

These problems affect children’s learning ability and school readiness. “When you don’t know where you are going to sleep at night, you don’t think about learning colors and numbers,” says Joyce Davidson, the citywide kindergarten coordinator for CPS. Davidson also tutors homeless preschoolers.

While Kymarria has had some early education, it has been sporadic. And children who are not in preschool on a consistent basis risk losing the academic progress they make.

“Children need positive educational experiences. The more they have, the better,” says Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “They receive more conversation and stimulation. Long-term attendance creates long-term gains that can be retained over time.”

Having children attend preschool on a regular basis is also good for parents, she adds.

“Preschool is where we as parents train ourselves to get our children to school on time,” Rauner explains. “And research has shown that [school] attendance is a major predictor of school success.”   

Jones, who has lived in Chicago most of her life, has frequently bounced between the homes of various relatives. Two years ago, she moved to Gary, Ind., to live with an aunt. Eventually she was able to afford an apartment of her own.

“My rent was $200, but I was only getting $342 a month [in public assistance],” she says. “Money was tight, but me and my kids made it.” Jones enrolled Kymarria, then 3, in a Head Start program.

But Kymarria had to quit the program when Jones moved back to Chicago and into her father’s home to escape an abusive boyfriend. Kymarria did not go to preschool, and soon the family had to move again when Jones discovered she was pregnant and her father asked her to leave.

“He told me, ‘You just keep getting pregnant. You need to learn to grow up and stand on your own,’ ” she says. “He still helps out when he can. I just can’t live with him.”

Last July, the family moved to a South Chicago shelter run by the organization Inner Voice, which operates nine shelters in the city. A month later, Jones discovered that the other children at the shelter were being enrolled at Marsh Elementary, a half-mile away. So she tried to enroll Kymarria and sister Kearria in Marsh’s Preschool for All program, but the classes were full.

Later, she was offered two slots, but at different times during the day (the preschool program is for 2-1/2 hours). Jones declined, and opted to enroll the three girls in Lubug’s Academy for Tiny Tots, a home-based child care center in Roseland, which has a contract with the state to care for homeless children whose parents are attending school or special programs. The center also provides an early-learning curriculum. Children are picked up from shelters in the morning and dropped back off in the late afternoon, which gave Jones time to attend classes that focus on subjects like depression and self-esteem, along with courses to get her GED.

The center’s owner, Melinda Jackson, employs five homeless women to help teach the children. Each of the women has taken 16 to 18 hours of child development coursework, more than a state requirement of 15 hours for child care workers.  However, unlike Preschool for All programs, there are no certified teachers at the center.  

When the girls arrived in August, Kymarria was not at a 4-year-old’s developmental level, says Jackson, who has an associate’s degree in early childhood development. She didn’t know how to identify numbers or the alphabet and lacked other skills that 4-year olds should have. Her younger sister, Kearria, was behind, too. The youngest daughter, Samyra, 2, was not talking at all.

But by January, Jackson says, the two older girls had made progress. Samyra would occasionally talk in complete sentences.

“Kymarria knew her colors, numbers, shapes and letters,” Jackson says. “She was also tying her shoes.” Jackson shows off papers that Kymarria completed, showing how well the child was able to trace her name. 

But in February, Kymarria’s progress seemed to decline. When she showed a visitor what she’d learned, she had some difficulty writing her name and identifying colors and shapes. While Jackson surmises that Kymarria could have been having an off day—not unusual for children that age—she suspects that the child’s skills were not being reinforced at home.

“Moms have to do the homework that I send home to reinforce their children’s skills,” says Jackson. “Ikeda would not do homework.  I kept on her about that. I encouraged her to work with them.”

Jackson’s assumption rings true.

“I try to read to them, but I’m not gonna lie, I don’t have much patience,” Jones says. “When I’m working with them, I get frustrated.  I tell them to go sit down somewhere and do something.”

In mid-February, the family moved again, to a three-bedroom apartment in a gated community in Waukegan. The shelter found the apartment through a suburban housing authority. The Chicago Housing Authority is no longer distributing Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income families, one official explains, and many homeless families in Chicago are finding housing outside the city.

“We have 40 families that we moved to Danville in the last two years,” says Brady Harden, the president of Inner Voice, which has helped families find housing in Rockford, Peoria, Indiana and Wisconsin. “We don’t like to uproot families, but it is better than staying in a shelter.”

Harden speculates that the number of homeless families with children will increase in the next three years because of the recession.  “In our shelters, our fastest-growing segment is homeless families.”

Without a car to get around, and four children under the age of 5, Jones feels isolated. Although there is a Wal-Mart store five minutes away by car, on the bus, the trip takes 20 minutes or more. Jones still relies on an aunt in Chicago to take her to the store, or back to Chicago to the baby’s pediatrician and to the public assistance office, where she still must go to get milk for the baby and other services. Her case hasn’t yet been transferred to Waukegan.

Jones doesn’t have child care and without it, she cannot look for a job, which she says she desperately wants.

“Families like this need a lot of support to make sure their lives are stable enough to support their children,” Rauner says. 

Inner Voice follows up with families for at least six months after they leave the shelter, or even longer if needed, even when they leave the city, says Alisa Webb, the director of family programs at Inner Voice.

Webb says Jones fell through the cracks, and that some of her staff probably need to be re-educated about the services families should continue to get.

“If her children are not in preschool, we should be assisting with that,” says Webb. “We are not relaying this information effectively to our families.”

In the meantime, the longer Kymarria stays at home, the more likely she is to fall behind.
“We already know about the research that children in poverty lose [skills] over the summer,” says Rauner. “They are not being read to, they are not going to the zoo, like middle-class children are. Think about the rate of growth in the first five years. Then imagine what happens when a child falls behind.”

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