Inside Precious Lamb Preschool, eight three- to five-year-olds sit in miniature blue chairs around a white table, eating cereal. Their gaze drifts often to a four- year-old who sits apart, alone, against a wall. He wears a turquoise polo and matching plaid shorts; he is solemn and silent. Keely Smith, one of three teachers in the classroom, urges the boy to use words to express his feelings, but he remains still, unyielding.
The children at Precious Lamb arrive every weekday morning after spending the night in shelters or in substance abuse centers where a parent is in treatment. Until now, they have been shuttled among relatives, friends, and neighbors, or slept in hotel rooms and cars.
Located next to a church in downtown Long Beach, California, Precious Lamb opened in 2002 to meet the requests of several area programs serving homeless families. It gives these kids just a semblance of stability—and they are the lucky ones. Its students, who are enrolled for anywhere from two weeks to two years, are accepted at the school only when referred by a shelter; their mothers must be working or in school, counseling, or drug rehabilitation.
The number of homeless children in the United States climbed by eight percent to about 2.5 million from 2012 to 2013—a historic high, according to a report by the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research from 2014. This disturbing increase is due to a combination of factors, including the high poverty rate, America’s lack of affordable housing, and the lingering effects of the Great Recession and foreclosure crisis, says Dr. Ellen Bassuk, the report’s lead author and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Federal law protects older homeless children by ensuring (formally, at least) that they are in or have access to school, but there is "not as strong a safeguard" for those younger than six.
The rise in the number of households run by single women is another critical factor, because single mothers, particularly those who are African American or Hispanic, have a high poverty rate. “It’s a problem of families headed by moms alone with young children,” Bassuk says.
Federal law protects older homeless children by ensuring (formally, at least) that they are in or have access to school, but there is “not as strong a safeguard” for those younger than six, says Sheila Smith, the director of early childhood at the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “They should be considered an exceptionally vulnerable group,” she adds.
About half of those 2.5 million homeless kids are under the age of six, Bassuk says. President Obama has called for expanding access to preschool for all children through federal-state partnerships and existing Head Start programs, but despite substantial increases in access, his plan has yet to close the gap between the need and the spaces available for young homeless children, Smith says. More funding is necessary to expand high-quality preschools and day-care programs, hire trained teachers, and provide staff development.
Since their parents can be highly stressed from trying to provide basic needs like food and shelter, young homeless children often don’t receive vital early verbal interaction and play. The result might be a delay in the development of language skills and reading comprehension. “It’s almost like lacking an essential nutrient,” Smith says.
Preschools and day-care centers for homeless kids have opened in Boston, Atlanta, and San Diego, among other cities. Some are attached to shelters. Others—like Precious Lamb, which is funded through donations from community groups, churches, and individuals—exist because civic leaders or educators saw a distinct need.
Precious Lamb added a second classroom last year so that it could serve up to 30 children at a time. “We’re consistently full, with a waiting list,” says Lailanie Jones, the school’s executive director. “That wasn’t the case a few years ago.”
For Amber Pittman, 31, who became addicted to crack cocaine after the death of her mother and, as a result, lost custody of her son for two years, the school “was a huge factor in ending our homelessness.” Precious Lamb provided structure, care, and safety for Josiah, now six, while Pittman attended college and continued her recovery. Josiah attended the preschool last year while they lived in a shelter, which they were required to vacate early every morning. Before enrolling him at the school, Pittman took Josiah on the bus with her everywhere she went: medical appointments, drug tests, government offices.
After breakfast, Keely Smith leads the group in a circle of song. “If you’re wearing white today, white today, white today, stand up and shout hooray!” she sings. The children jump up, giggling and eager to repeat the refrain with each color their teacher—wearing a red top to match the bow in her long black hair—calls out.
"It's a problem of families headed by moms alone with young children."
The silent boy watches as another student is asked to help lead the children in reciting the days of the week. Smith reminds the boy leading the group that he must act as “an example” for his classmates. She also tells her students that, soon, they will be playing with other children outside, and to use “kind words” like “please” and “thank you.”
By mid-morning, the children from Smith’s class are playing in the schoolyard in a whirl of red, green, purple, and blue balloons twisted to look like swords. The boy who was so reserved all morning is now jumping and twirling on a grassy mound. He’s smiling. The children follow him, running, laughing, lifting their swords high to the sky.
Smith, who has taught at the school for five years now, is not surprised by the boy’s new demeanor. His teachers have been working closely with him to develop skills to let him express himself, and Smith knows the boy has a passion for Power Rangers. “You really have to get to know the child, study the child,” Smith says. “They want to be understood on their level.”
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