‘Forget the diploma’ or the GED

Penelope Trunk was asked to provide career coaching to a 19-year-old dropout with no formal job experience. When the girl was kicked out by her aunt — after fleeing an abusive stepfather and prostitute sisters — Trunk took her into the family.

Forget about earning a diploma or a GED, Trunk is advising Kate.

Kate told me, “I was good at school… Well. When I went. I didn’t really go enough to be good at school. But I would have been good.”

I think what she means by that is that she is curious and smart. Which is definitely true. It’s just that when kids don’t have a consistent place to live, they don’t have a reliable way to get to school. . . . she stayed with kids who were expelled which made it even harder to get to school.

Trunk believes she can help Kate “get jobs to figure out what she likes to do.” If she wants to go to college, she can say she was homeschooled and explain “how she spent her childhood worrying where her next meal will come from, and where she will sleep next.”

Both employers and colleges know that the GED is for kids who couldn’t get through the system. . . . The GED is a distraction from your real purpose as an almost-twentysomething, which is to explain why you are special and different and will make a good employee or a good student and most of all, a good member of the community you’d like to be a part of.

Kate does not need any seal of approval from a high school or a testing center.

Employers don’t like to hire people who couldn’t handle high school, even with a GED. They like people who show up every day.

Unless Trunk has very good connections, Kate will have trouble finding a job. Without a diploma or GED, she won’t qualify for a Pell Grant to cover college costs. Colleges don’t give scholarships for survival skills — not without proof of academic competence.

I’d recommend lying. Teach Kate to claim she was homeschooled in the conventional sense and that she’s employed as a nanny for Trunk’s kids.

She can use free online resources to assess and improve her academic skills, then take a community college class to redefine herself as a college student. When she figures out what she wants to do . . . It will be hard, but not impossible.

Why did Kyle get rejected?

When his family was homeless, Kyle studied in the school library and earned straight A’s. He competed in cross country, despite his epilepsy. As a National Honor Society member, he volunteered in the community. His “excellent grades” were backed by high test scores. Why did so many colleges reject Kyle?, asks Michele Kerr on Hypersensitive.

All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

Kyle will go to Brown on a full scholarship. But Kerr is “shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.”

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

Elite schools say they’re eager to admit disadvantaged minority students who are academically prepared. Kerr wonders if they’re saving their “black” admissions for athletes in major sports, the children of black alumni or students from networked, media-savvy charter schools.

Kyle is “a great kid – funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat,” she writes. “His success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity — and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.”

For needy students, a Single Stop for aid

Homeless, Jason showered at the community college gym, slept in the library till closing then rode the subway all night.  At the Single Stop office on campus, a counselor helped him get food stamps, health insurance, student aid, financial counseling, a work-study job and a lead on a cheap room to rent. The nonprofit is partnering with community colleges to help low-income students get the aid they need to stay in school.

When poor kids grow up

Jonathan Kozol’s Fire in the Ashes asks: What happens to desperately poor children when they grow up? He follows up on children featured in his earlier books. Kozol, now 76, tells grim stories, but doesn’t analyze why some kids overcome their circumstances and others don’t, writes Emily Bazelon in Slate.

“Eric” (all names are changed) lived in New York’s shelter hotels for four years in the 1980s, beginning when he was 11, with his mother, Vicky, and sister, Lisette. Kozol met the family  in 1993, when the city had moved them to a poor section of the Bronx, Mott Haven. “Eric . . .  had an element of likability and even of good humor,” Kozol writes.

One day in 1996, Kozol got a call from a doctor in Montana who’d read Amazing Grace and was part of a church that wanted to help a Mott Haven family resettle in their small town. . . . The social experiment went well for Lisette, who makes it to college and is about to become a paralegal when Kozol catches up with her at 26, but badly for Eric. Wary and suspicious of the adults who reached out to him, he dropped out of school, got a local girl pregnant, ran into trouble with the cops, and probably dealt drugs. When Vicky was evicted in 2000 from the home the church helped provide, the doctor blamed Eric for breaking into her house when she was working at night and blasting music with his friends. Vicky started drinking heavily, and then in 2001, she called Kozol with devastating news: Eric was dead, shot in the head, an apparent suicide.

Christopher , who also grew up in the shelter hotels and moved to Mott Haven as a teenager, became part of a group that threw a boy onto the train tracks. He was convicted of attempted murder.

Asked to write a letter to support Christopher’s bid to reduce his sentence, Kozol did so once, reluctantly, but refused to a second time, because “there was no indication that he felt remorseful or responsible for what he’d done.” It’s not surprising when Christopher dies of a heroin overdose after he’s released from prison. In fact, to be cold about it—in a way that Kozol would never be—Christopher’s death comes as something of a relief, because he has become a terrible drain on his much more functional younger sister, Miranda.

Girls overcome when boys cannot? Kozol writes that he sees “parallels” but not “patterns.”

In the second half of the book, Kozol tells happier stories about children who in young adulthood have pulled themselves into stability, because they had especially devoted parents or with a major assist from a local priest and a private school education, paid for by a small foundation Kozol created for this purpose.

When he wonders if anything has changed, a girl named Pineapple tells Kozol to think positive.

. . .  she and her sister are determined to go back to the neighborhood with their college degrees and “you know? Make little changes that we can? … Picking battles that we have a chance to win?”

“Over his career Kozol has wrought many small changes and won many individual battles,” writes Bazelon.

Thick shelled

Mussels adapt to predatory crabs in a Long Island salt marsh by growing a thicker shell, concluded Samantha Garvey, after two years of research. The 17-year-old, a semi-finalist for the $100,000 Intel science prize, has a pretty thick shell herself. She’s been living in a motel and then a homeless shelter with her parents and three siblings since their eviction on New Year’s Eve.

Her mother, Olga, a nurse’s assistant, was out of work for eight months following a car accident in February, and her father, Leo, could not keep up with the bills alone on his salary as a cab driver.

The family will move into a rent-subsidized three-bedroom home in 10 days.

Before the eviction, the Garveys had rented a home for six or seven years, Leo Garvey said. Before that, the family had also lived in homeless shelters from time to time; Leo Garvey described himself as a recovering alcoholic.

Samantha said that she had worried for several months before the eviction, knowing that her mother was ailing and money was tight.

Garvey plans to become a marine biologist. She’s applied to Yale and Brown.


The education thief

A homeless woman has been arrested for first-degree larceny for “stealing” $15,686 for her son’s education, reports the Stamford Advocate. Tonya McDowell, 33, used the Norwalk, Connecticut address of her after-school babysitter to enroll her six-year-old son in a nearby school. McDowell alternates between a friend’s apartment in Bridgeport and a homeless shelter in Norwalk, she told police.

The Norwalk Housing Authority discovered the ruse in January, evicted the babysitter and turned McDowell into the school district, which is cracking down on out-of-district students. This is the first time Norwalk has charged a parent with a crime for using a false address.

While (Mayor Richard) Moccia said it was sad the case involves a woman who appears to be homeless, he pointed out that if she had been living at the Norwalk shelter and registered her child there she would not be facing charges now.

I realize that McDowell doesn’t pay Norwalk taxes, but she’s not paying Bridgeport taxes either.  (I assume she has a job, since she needs child care, so she may pay some state taxes.) One woman has been evicted, another could go to jail and all because a little boy went to school in a district where he sometimes lives.

Of course, this recalls the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar, the Ohio woman who spent several days in jail for using her father’s address to get her kids into a better and safer school.

Norwalk schools are better, notes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation, who has stats on “promoting power” for black students in the two districts. The Connecticut Parents Union is lobbying to let McDowell’s son finish out the school year and is raising money to pay the $15,686 in tuition for out-of-district students, Biddle writes. A pro-McDowell petition is here.

For $95, a homeless doll

Gwen Thompson, the newest American Girl doll, is homeless. Dad left, mom lost her job and they now sleep in a car. Like other dolls in the very expensive collection, Gwen sells for $95.

The decision to create Gwen, a friend to bully-battling Chrissa, is “at best a head-scratcher and at worst a horribly offensive cultural trainwreck,” writes Nina Shen on Double X.

I agree that Mattel should donate the profits to help real homeless children.  If not, parents might want to donate $95 to charity and tell their little girls to make do with the dolls they’ve already got.