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City: Chelsea
Population: 32,792 (2006)
Income: $14,628 (1999)
MCAS Scores (2007)

City: Everett
Population: 37,008 (2006)
Income: $19,845 (1999)
MCAS Scores (2007)

City: Malden
Population: 55,595 (2006)
Income: $22,004 (1999)
MCAS Scores (2007)

City: Revere
Population: 46,833 (2006)
Income: $19,698 (1999)
MCAS Scores (2007)

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Massachusetts Community Profiles

Housing Families

Citizen Schools (Malden)

Horizons for Homeless Children

The housing crisis’ hidden victims

Amid recent economic shortfalls and greater emphasis on tests scores, non-profit children’s programs north of Boston are stretching their resources to improve the learning abilities of low-income and homeless children struggling in schools.

BY JAKE SUGERMAN

metro_north

Photo: Jake Sugerman

MALDEN – So how was your day today?

For the students at the Housing Families Children’s program in Malden, discussing their day at school is not as easy a question to answer. While many of the children are often embarrassed to talk about their day, or “show their thumbs” as is often the case at the after-school program, many of them feel safe even though they don’t always show it. This place is their refuge from the outside world where they sometimes don’t understand what is happening to them or their families. Or why their grades are slipping. Why they just can’t pass that test at school.

In giving the children of low-income families a positive environment for learning and fun, organizations like Housing Families and others in the cities and towns in the Malden area are working to alleviate the stresses that are plaguing them at home and at school. Between a sputtering national economy, a financially constricting housing crisis and frustrating educational policies, the kids these groups cater to are forced to grow up at much too early an age. They are turning to these programs for the support they do not get at home and in school.

“There are two extremes that I see…one is that there are kids that are extremely parentified, they’ve heard and experienced way too much for their young age and they act all grown up, but they’re not getting the chance to play and be a kid and do some of the developmental things that they should,” says Barbara Schwartz, director of the Housing Families Children’s Program, which works primarily with kids from Malden, Revere and Everett. “The other thing I see is kids that are so emotionally overwrought that they have so many feelings that it’s hard for them to concentrate at all.”

Problems at home and the housing crisis are just a few of the issues plaguing children in this area. Another of these is well intended No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).  Created to increase funding and accountability of states, school districts and schools, the hope was that this law would improve the education of children in poor school districts.

Groups invested in education in the United States, such as the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), among countless others, support the idea of changing schools in the United States. But many feel the policies of No Child Left Behind are doing the opposite of what was anticipated: children are not getting the education they need and deserve and are being left behind.

Unfortunately, the recommendations of these organizations to improve the law and further help school districts are falling on deaf ears. Many, including the NEA and AFT, are disappointed by the outcome of No Child Left Behind and consistently offer their own idea on how to change how children learn in schools. An independent bipartisan congressional panel, the Aspen Commission on No Child Left Behind, made reccomendations last year on how the 2002 legislation should be updated in the wake of its expiration on Sept. 30, 2007.

While President Bush continues to believe in his own failing policies, in reality nothing has changed for the children living in low-income areas, especially those in Metro North Boston. For these kids, the ways NCLB and policies of Massachusetts’ Department of Education have impacted their lives can be seen through the administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam.

Designed to meet the requirements of the Massachusetts Education Reform Law of 1993, MCAS demands that all students in public schools, including students with disabilities and limited knowledge of English, are to be tested to measure their performance in school in order to eventually earn a high school diploma. The state’s Department of Education also uses the exam to hold schools and their districts accountable “for the progress they have made toward the objective of the No Child Left Behind Law that all students be proficient in Reading and Mathematics by 2014,” as stated on their website.

“Every year I see kids completely panicked by MCAS,” Schwartz said of her experiences at Housing Families with children and the test. “I see kids spending a lot of time focusing on MCAS that I’m not always sure is the best use of their time in school. I think there’s a lot less time on creative things. I think that critical thinking, the ability to solve a problem, is what [children] need more than passing a test.”

At Citizens Schools, a Boston-based national program with a location in Malden’s Salemwood Middle School, the effects of MCAS and problems at home are easily seen by the volunteers and teachers who work with the more than 80 children enrolled there during the week. Like the Housing Families Children’s Program, the organization does what it can to give their students a positive environment to improve academically and emotionally.

“A lot the students’ parents…many are immigrants or are working long hours, leaving very little structure at home,” says Allison Stahl, the Malden campus director. “It’s challenging for them, working multiple jobs at long hours and being an integral part of their kids’ lives while making ends meet. And it really affects the kids.”

Citizens Schools uses a specific model to offer after-school, homework assistance,  apprenticeships where volunteers introduce kids to specific jobs fields (such as law, architecture and “how to run a business”), field trips and other activities.  But what Stahl has found, however, is that the MCAS exam is overshadowing the work the organization does to help students at Malden’s largest middle school.

“[MCAS] creates a real high stress and emotional environment…both the school and our program are trying to keep it positive, but the test affects the atmosphere,” she said. “Here we try to do things that are fun that are not always possible during the day. But it’s challenging for some students, especially for those who have special needs, and the testing makes it more difficult for us…to help students with their needs.”

But low-income and homeless families continue to suffer because of the housing crisis, along with their children. Some wait months for decent housing, and others are barely making ends meet. Even more are living in difficult conditions without access to basic necessities, such as food and clothing. All of these factors are adding to the stress felt by many local children, these professionals say.

“Today children are being exposed to things they normally wouldn’t be,” says Amanda Browne, Playspace Programs Northeast Region director at Horizons for Homeless Children, a non-profit organization that works to improve the lives of homeless children through hundreds of programs and shelters in Greater Boston. “The impact on the children, the most important issue [is that] they’re living in substandard living conditions. Any conflicts that arise, the children are [stuck in the middle]…and psychologically it’s difficult for them and their families.”