The American public education system serves nearly 50 million students grades K-12 per year. Of this overwhelming number of students, an estimated 954,914 of them are homeless. Economic conditions of recent years have produced a rising number of homeless youth who are commonly educated in public schools. Financial struggle, transportation limitations, lack of home stability and other obstacles faced by homeless youth negatively influence the probability of their success; as compared to their non-homeless classmates. One elementary school in Orlando, Florida knows the reality of homeless students all too well.
Fern Creek Elementary in Orlando, Florida navigates a unique situation. 20 percent of their students live in homeless shelters. Principal Patrick Galatowitsch responds to Fern Creek’s homeless population with a fresh attitude. Suspensions are not used as punishment. “It makes no sense to remove a child who needs school the most,” Galatowitsch told the New York Times. For students who have unstable living situations, the consistency and support at Fern Creek presents a dependable and safe environment.
The children have fun too. Monthly programs dedicated to art, science and music are offered for extracurricular fun and learning; and often send children home with learning materials at no cost. Galatowitsch organizes transportation for students living in shelters to ensure the equal opportunity to learning for all students at Fern Creek.
With 85 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, it seems the cards may be stacked against Fern Creek. But the school continues to hold an “A” rating; determined by the percent of students who pass math and reading standards by grade. Galatowitsch attributes this success to experienced teachers, and small class sizes. Florida legislation sets mandatory class size limits; many at Fern Creek are around 18.
Fern Creek is not alone in the battle. Orange County Public Schools in Florida serves 2,953 homeless students and the numbers are rising. The Federal statistic reporting 954,914 homeless students in America was last reported in 2009.