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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Teacher’s compassion tempers girls’ chaos

Fourth-grader LaQuinda Russ gets help from her teacher, Betsy Weigle, in coming up with ideas for writing about a book she read Wednesday at Adams Elementary School. Russ is one of many Spokane students who have been homeless. (Jesse Tinsley)

You might not notice anything out of the ordinary about LaQuinda Russ as she works on an essay in her fourth-grade class at Adams Elementary School.

She’s a beautiful kid – lanky and tall, with a fast, bright smile and watchful eyes. She lies on her stomach, book open beside her as she writes carefully, stops, fidgets, looks around, raises her hand for help, erases a word, tries again. Her teacher, Betsy Weigle, looks at her paper and sends her back to work.

You might not know, just to look at her, that LaQuinda Russ is homeless. Not on-the-street homeless, but she and her mother and sister were forced to move in with her grandparents – a home that is now packed with 17 kids and five adults. It’s the fourth home in four years for 9-year-old LaQuinda – who also lived in an apartment, a duplex and a tent for a couple of months. In the midst of such chaos, Adams and Weigle have been anchors for LaQuinda and her sister, Mashia, 10.

“It’s hard enough they have to move house to house to house, to be homeless, nowhere to stay,” says their mother, Monica Sanders. “So to be able to stay in the same school … School is very important. That’s the top priority.”

Unfortunately, teachers might have a hard time spotting the homeless kids in their own classroom – especially those living in the kind of couch-surfing, house-sharing situations known as “doubling up.” For Weigle, nine years of teaching in Spokane – including four years at Holmes Elementary, one of the poorest schools in the state – have gradually turned her into something of an expert on homelessness in this city.

“It’s pervasive,” she said. “It’s everywhere, and teachers are having to deal with it.”

Weigle has created a new website, the Homeless Student Action Center, that offers help for teachers in identifying, helping and teaching homeless kids. It’s not something the school district asked her – or paid her – to do. It was just something Weigle thought was important. So she spent the summer researching and writing the materials for the site, and having it translated into Spanish. It includes a wide range of materials, including advice for connecting with parents, different options for assistance, federal laws regarding equal access to education for children, and ideas for raising awareness about the issue.

“The website is all the things I wish someone had told me before I started teaching,” she said.

Under the federal definition, homelessness includes people living with others, in transitional housing or in shelters, and homeless students have a right to be educated and to remain in their “school of origin.” The district’s Homeless Education and Resource Team aims to keep kids in the same school, even if their parents are moving among districts, and to connect families with social services. LaQuinda and Mashia – who attended Weigle’s class last year – have lived in three elementary school attendance areas in the past few years, but have been able to stay at Adams by taking the HEART bus.

Helping homeless kids has become a cause for Weigle. The chaos in the lives of homeless kids can put them so far behind when the school day begins that they can never catch up without help. And, as much as providing supplies and bus rides is crucial, so is something else that’s harder to define: an extra level of attention and awareness. That sounds less difficult than it is, given the already challenging task that teachers face, trying to guide a roomful of children with a wide range of needs and abilities and problems.

Weigle calls it “that little thing you keep in the back of your mind; that extra understanding of their perspective. … I’ve had kids living in hotels, kids sleeping on floors, and you just need to understand their perspective. They can’t help the circumstances they’re living in.”

I’ve known Weigle since college. She’s one of those people who brightens the dim corners of every room she enters – just a positive, vibrant presence. When she interacts with the girls and with Sanders, you see how the force of her personality helps to lift them a bit, and you can tell the girls love her.

“She’s such a little mini-me,” Weigle said as LaQuinda smiled at her shyly. “She’s my little teacher’s helper.”

Sanders said, “The kids want to come to school even when they’re sick.”

It’s literally their haven. And Weigle wants to see that kids like LaQuinda – smart, lively, beautiful, homeless – can get as much help as possible.

“I could tell you so many stories about homeless families,” she said. “So many stories.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter @vestal13.