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Special Report: Homelessness in North Kingstown (Quidnessett at the forefront of battle to bridge gap)

April 20, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN—When Allison Chatowsky talks about homelessness and the effect it has on the children not only in her kindergarten classroom at Quidnessett Elementary School but throughout North Kingstown, there’s one thing she feels passionate about above all.
“What more would I like to see done?,” she asks on a recent Friday afternoon. “I would definitely like to see our children not be labeled. All children should be identified and treated equally.”
Chatowsky is not alone in her view. In fact, her school goes above and beyond its duties to try to put every child on equal footing.
As the only Title I school in North Kingstown, Quidnessett offers a plethora of programs and services aimed directly at ensuring that all children have an equal opportunity to achieve a high-quality education and in many ways, that puts the school at the forefront in the battle against homelessness among children in North Kingstown.
Governed by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a law passed by Congress in 1987, Quidnessett is mandated to make sure homeless children are allowed to stay in school even if they move; are allowed to enroll in a new school without proof of residency, immunizations, school records or other papers; get transportation to school and get all the school services they need.
But Quidnessett doesn’t merely provide the minimum; it goes further and that demonstrates how committed the district is to addressing the problem, according to Supt. Dr. Phil Thornton.
“We have a staff here that’s been here for many years and the systems that are created in Title I that allows us to help these families,” Thornton says. “Every district has to have a homeless coordinator. In many districts, it’s one of the hats of the assistant superintendent or a curriculum director and I would tell you that while folks work hard on these things, it might not always be first and foremost.
“In this district, we have Donna Thompson, who’s our Title I person, and her team. One of the [focuses] of Title I is homelessness and so I think we have a staff dedicated to homelessness and [we] do a much better job of providing services.”
What exactly are the services provided?
According to Thompson, the Title I coordinator for the NK School District and the director of the Child Operating Zone (COZ), which is located inside Quidnessett, that means schools in the district assist families if they lack appropriate clothing. It also means the COZ is tasked with making sure that students are enrolled in at least three days, as mandated by the McKinney-Vento law.
Additionally, the COZ Family Learning Partnership is there to help in any way possible, be it in helping homeless students find transportation, making sure that they are signed up for free or reduced-cost lunch or, more commonly, providing academic support.
Those are some of the ways in which North Kingstown, specifically Quidnessett, help in the fight against the effects of homelessness on children in the district.
“Whether it’s a homework club, whether it’s some enrichment activities in the areas of math, science, reading, other literacy supports, we extend the school day for them,” Thompson explains. “Being in a learning environment a little bit longer with a little bit more support is important. We also run summer programs for that same goal so, in essence, that is our connection with the child, with the family, with the school social worker, with the child’s teacher, whatever it takes to get that child registered and present, front and center, ready to learn.”
The effect COZ, and programs like it, have is undeniable.
“I think these programs are a huge benefit,” Thornton says. “I can tell you even last week, I was down on Navy Roads at Crossroads. In that program, you see several young students, in many cases with their moms, getting a service in an educational setting. The researchers agree on a couple of things: If you get to children early and give them educational dimensions, you do improve achievements, so giving these families an educational setting early on is a huge, huge benefit.”
Chatowsky herself sees how important it is to help children at an early age. In her class, she says, students are too young to really know what types of situations they are in and, therefore, it’s important to get a jump start on keeping them feeling like that for as long as possible.
“I don’t label the children as homeless vs. [those with] homes. I see them all on an even playing field,” she says. “I see them all as deserving of love and education and that’s exactly what they get. I have to believe that through love and education that we can break the cycle that they have been thrown into.”
This was the second installment of a four-part series exploring the issue of homelessness in North Kingstown.
Part three will examine the Crossroads housing development and its impact on families in transition. The final installment will focus on some of the ways in which local residents are becoming involved in seeking solutions.
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