Children in emergency shelters are missing more than a home and a family, they are also missing continuity in their education. The Helicon Shelter Education Program, a division of Childrens Comprehensive Services, provides certified teachers, materials, curriculum, and academic-record keeping on site at 27 emergency foster-care shelters throughout the state of Tennessee.
The shelters, operated by local churches, private contract providers, and public agencies, give temporary residential care to children who have been referred to them by probation officers or social-service case workers. Helicon supplements the shelter care by providing a full-day education program on site to children age 6 to 18 who are in temporary state custody. About half the children are delinquents or runaways. The other half are neglected or abused children awaiting placement in foster care or return to their families. For children enrolled in the Helicon education program, the average length of stay in the shelter is approximately 30 days.61
Under contract with the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration at a daily rate of $40 per pupil, Helicon, Inc. tailors educational services to each child, maintaining a student-to-teacher ratio of no more than eight-to-one. On any given day, Helicon teachers educate 350 students in Tennessees emergency shelters.62
Providing education on a short-term, unpredictable basis presents unique challenges. "The biggest issue, and the reason we were given the opportunity to do this, is because previously the child had been shuffled around from district to district and their records didnt follow them and their credits werent transferred. Children were dropping out because they werent getting credit," says Mark Claypool, Helicons director of day treatment programs.63 Helicon is responsible for locating and obtaining school records for every child it serves.
"Because these children come from all over the state, its been a huge problem to track down the records. Sometimes their records were being held up by something as simple as a library fine that wasnt paid and so the school secretary wouldnt release the records. We paid the library fines," explains Claypool.
Serving children of varying ages and abilities in a residential shelter raises a number of logistical issues. Some shelters are so small, the living room becomes the classroom for the day or classroom space is borrowed from a local church. Because the shelters never know what kind of child will turn up at their door, "we have to have an incredible continuum of curricula materials at each site, no matter how small," says Claypool.
He says that a greater number of delinquent youth are being referred to shelters in Tennessee than in the past. Helicon works with facility staff to help them accommodate these new demands. "We do a great deal of training in behavior modification. At this level of intervention, were getting a more difficult [student] population."