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School sinks roots in a world of change

Classrooms steady kids from struggling families often on the move

The two girls, standing in line to go outside for recess, obviously have been bickering.

'Can I talk to you?' one Ñ tears in her eyes Ñ asks Cheryl Bickle, principal of the Community Transitional School. Bickle assures her that she can, later, and gently shoos them out onto the playground of the former St. Stephen's Catholic School in Southeast Portland.

Since January, the site has been the first permanent home the Community Transitional School has had in its 13-year history. That's especially significant to the school because it serves children who are themselves homeless, or near to it, living in one housing situation after another Ñ shelters, domestic violence safe houses, even vehicles.

As schools closes for the summer (the last day for students was June 10), Bickle knows that life will become even more uncertain than usual for students.

'At school, the kids know they're going to have breakfast; they know they're going to have lunch; they know what they're going to do,' Bickle explains. 'When school gets out, there's very little routine. We sent home notices about parks programs, free meals, camp scholarships. We had three parents follow up.'

That's three of the parents of the 250-plus children, preschool through eighth grade, who attended Community Transitional at some time during the 2002-03 school year. About 70 were enrolled on any given day.

'Kids start dropping out the beginning of June,' Bickle says. 'To go where? I don't know. There never seems to be a really concrete plan. Last year, 10 days after school was out, we could only find one-third of our kids. It's really a time of extreme mobility.'

Bickle's perception that her students lack plans for summer is not, some of them say, entirely accurate.

One girl, who has just completed fifth grade, announces happily that she is looking forward to summer because she is going camping with her 20-year-old sister, who has two kids and didn't finish school; her sister's boyfriend; and the boyfriend's brother, as soon as the brother gets out of jail. The brother and some friends 'got drunk on Martin Luther King Day and started driving down the road shooting at cars,' she says.

The girl lives in a trailer in Southeast Portland with her mom and a man she calls her dad Ñ she's unsure of his last name Ñ and her brother, a sixth-grader who, like her, has been attending Community Transitional 'a long time.' She isn't sure of her brother's last name, either, but doesn't think it's the same as hers. Neither parent is employed.

Who's attending?

According to Bickle, the girl's history is typical of Community Transitional's students, for whom the school has compiled the following statistics:

• Eighty percent live in households headed by single mothers. 'Their moms might not be young now, but they were when they had the kids,' Bickle says. 'They hadn't finished their schooling, and their families have long-term cycles of that.'

In addition, Bickle says, the typical mother of a Community Transitional student has 'a lot of issues. Possibly low self-esteem. Nobody wants to be homeless. Nobody wants to be living in a motel. In my mind, it must be pretty depressing.'

• Most of the students live in what Bickle calls extreme poverty. Most of the parents are unemployed and receiving Aid to Dependent Children benefits from the state. Their children get breakfast, lunch, some or all of their clothing, some personal hygiene items and family food baskets, even backpacks and school supplies from the school.

'They live in motels with microwaves, hot plates or nothing,' Bickle says. 'So, nutrition is a real issue for them.'

• Most of their fathers have been 'gone for quite a while,' Bickle says. 'We have a couple of two-parent families, but they are the real exception. In my room' Ñ Bickle teaches the combined second- through fourth-grade class as well as being principal Ñ 'three of the 26 kids live with two-parent families.'

• At any time, about 20 percent of the students are living in domestic violence shelters. 'Not all of the children have seen violence, but a lot have,' Bickle says.

All of these problems, she says, combine to make the children's living situations highly transitory.

'Our typical student is probably homeless,' she says, 'and this is not a new experience for the child. They're going to be homeless again, even if they get a house. They're kids who have not known stability for long portions of their lives. One fourth-grade boy told me, 'I've never owned my own house, and I don't think I ever will.' Our all-time school record was 20, 21 moves in one school year that we knew of.'

More than education

Graciela Mulkey, who has attended Community Transitional with her identical twin, Brittany, for all four of her school years, knows all about moving. She ticks off the places they and their mother have lived: shelters, motels, an apartment, a little rented house.

'We're going to move again this Sunday,' she says Ñ her mother is pregnant and overdue Ñ 'because we're only 'vouchered in' for a week. She is referring to a housing assistance voucher that was allowing her family to stay in a motel on North Interstate Avenue and that, she hopes, will be extended until after her mother has the baby.

The school's little fleet of school buses picks up her, her sister and the school's other students in their own neighborhoods every day. The buses adjust their routes as the kids move around town.

'I like school; my favorite thing to do is come to school,' Graciela says. 'I've only missed five or six days. I wouldn't miss at all if I only had one place to live in.'

According to Bickle, the Community Transitional School Ñ a private, nonprofit entity that gets most of its money from foundations and donations Ñ is seeking to do more than provide its students with education, food and clothing.

'They're bright kids. They want to succeed,' Bickle says. 'I know these children can all make it. That doesn't mean they all will. But they have such strong survival skills. We work with them to develop traits of perseverance and respect for quality work.

'I want these kids, when they get their first jobs and their boss says, 'Do this,' they'll say, 'OK.' If you plant a seed now, someone else may water it later.'

Outside, near the school's garden, one of the squabblers is happily skipping rope.

The Community Transitional School, 4235 S.E. Salmon St., has leased the building from St. Stephen's Catholic Church since January. The school can be reached at 503-249-8582.