E-Alerts & Press Releases

ABAG's Adventures in Philanthropy Column

"Charitable Giving: Public Justice Center Film on Homeless School Children Illuminates Tough Issue"

By BETSY NELSON, Special to The Daily Record

September 5, 2008

Back-to-school season is in full swing in Baltimore. Each new school year is a “fresh start” as I recently heard Dr. Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, say in a radio interview. The images of the season are all around us: new haircuts, new backpacks and new notebooks. The images we are not so familiar with are those of homeless families struggling to enroll their children in school. This is a stark reality for thousands of Marylanders, whether they live “doubled up” with relatives or in homeless shelters, campgrounds or motels. And with the burgeoning foreclosure crisis gripping our communities, it is an experience that more will likely suffer. This is the impetus for the new advocacy film “Beyond Debate: Rights of Homeless Students” rolling out this month into the hands of parents, students, teachers, school officials and advocates. The film is the latest collaboration between the Public Justice Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy office, and the Megaphone Project, a nonprofit social justice filmmaker. The story educates us on the rights of homeless students through the story of Devonne, a high school senior with dreams of college. She is the star of the debate team and a likely candidate for a college scholarship. Part way through the school year, the foreclosure on their apartment building forces her family’s eviction and they move in with her aunt. When, just weeks away from graduation, school officials learn that Devonne has moved out of their geographic district, they make her leave her school and enroll in a new school in her aunt’s district. Her debate partner and coach learn that this is, in fact, illegal and that Devonne, like all homeless students, is protected under the federal McKinney-Vento Act. Will this make a difference for Devonne? Watch the movie and see. The characters in this movie are fictional and the script is a creative composite of real-life examples. But the moral of the story is the same: Housing disruption wreaks havoc on a child’s educational stability and can contribute to the vicious cycle of poverty. For nearly a decade, the Public Justice Center has worked to protect homeless children and their right to education. The organization is well-known for using creative, multi-pronged strategies to resolve deeply ingrained injustices. So far, the center’s efforts have reformed homeless student policies and practices in four county school districts. Now, it adds this film to take the message to a broader community. “Widespread public education is essential because it empowers individuals to assert their rights,” said Sally Dworak-Fisher, the PJC attorney who spearheaded the project. “The more people who know and understand the purpose and requirements of the law, the more vulnerable homeless students will have the educational stability they need to achieve.” The film is supported by a number of donors who found the project attractive for several reasons, including that it is a medium that can quickly spread a message to many. “Our hope is that it will raise awareness of educational rights of homeless children — for parents, teachers, school counselors and the students themselves — so that in an ideal world there is never a question about whether a student can continue on in his or her school,” Cristina Lopez, member of the Sachs Family Foundation, recently said. “We also hope that it will raise an awareness of the many living situations that constitute homelessness and therefore educate families who may not consider themselves homeless about their rights more generally,” she said. Other financial support for this project came from the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier, the Memorial Episcopal Church, the Marianist Sharing Fund, the DeVito Family Trust and the Baltimore Community Foundation. The film premieres Sept. 10 at Center Stage at an event that includes a panel discussion. Space is limited and reservations are strongly encouraged. Contact Mark McLaurin at (410)625-9409 x224 or mclaurinm@publicjustice.org to reserve your seat. Additional information is available at www.publicjustice.org.

Betsy Nelson, executive director of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, writes every other week for The Daily Record. She can be reached at 410-727-1205 or bnelson@abagmd.org

« Back