When Sherrie Gahn became the principal of Whitney Elementary in Las Vegas, she was shocked to see students eating ketchup packets. When she realized it was because many of her students were grappling with homelessness, she committed herself to doing something for them and their families.
CBS News reports that nearly 85 percent of Whitney students are homeless, but Gahn makes sure their basic needs are met.
"I told the parents that I would give them whatever they need," Gahn says. "All I need them to do is give me their children and let me teach them. In turn, I will give you food and clothes and we will take them to the eye doctor. I will pay your rent, pay your utilities, but keep your child here."
Under Gahn's leadership, Whitney provides disadvantaged children with items that range from free clothes to free haircuts, and operates a functioning food bank that distributes food to students for the weekends.
According to a CNN article published last year, the school has even provided financial assistance to families with overdue bills. Shirley Hernandez, whose grandchildren were students at Whitney, told CNN the school made it possible for her family to have Christmas.
Scholastic reports that Gahn's efforts have made an impact -- students have doubled their scores in reading proficiency on standardized tests since Gahn became principal. She believes that this increase is not only a result of students' needs being met, but also because the school fosters support that gives students hope for the future.
"They have food in their bellies that they would not have had, they have clothes on their back they wouldn't have had and for the first time someone believes in them. It's beyond food and clothing," she said.
As a growing number of families fall victim to the recession, public schools are reporting sharp increases in the numbers of homeless students. Unlike Whitney students, however, many homeless children have difficulty succeeding in school.
An article in the NY Times highlights that homelessness causes increases in high school dropout rates.
In Virginia, 21.2 percent of students who are homeless at some point during their high school years drop out, compared with 14.8 percent of all poor children, the state's Department of Education says. In Colorado, the high school graduation rate is 72 percent for all students, 59 percent for poor students and 48 percent for homeless students, according to data from the state's education Web site.
Faced with growing budget deficits, the federal government is unable to fund the rising numbers of homeless students who need help. According to The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), the Education For Homeless Chilldren and Youth (EHCY) programs that schools depend on to assist their homeless students, is short $10 million. In the past this has left more than 300,000 homeless children without services.
This is why Gahn decided not to rely on government support to fund her programs. She told the Las Vegas Sun:
"I've never looked to the state ... I've shied away from that because I need to sustain [the program] in the long haul. With budgets the way they are, I didn't know if they would."
Instead, she is backed by volunteers and members of the community who care about the cause. She has also partnered with nonprofits, including local charity Caring For Kids, who helps deliver food to Whitney students.
Gahn has recently enlisted the help of Nevada first lady, Kathleen Sandoval, to help create an after-school program modeled after the work Sandoval does with her nonprofit The Children's Cabinet.
According to the Las Vegas Sun, the program will be the first of its kind in Las Vegas.
"This gives them someplace to go where they feel they are productive, where they can actually produce something and do something useful," [Gahn] said. "Hopefully, that will lead them to a job or staying in school."
The program is set to be implemented next fall, when Whitney will welcome the next round of students in need. Those who have passed through its doors are not forgotten, however.
Gahn told CBS that she has made a promise to all her students -- if they graduate from high school and cannot afford college she will help pay their tuition.
Gahn says the children are worth the big promise. She defines success as "the look in their face that I made their life better. That's my success rate when they hug me and thank me for the food, the clothes. Then I know it's a good day."
Support Gahn's efforts with The Children's Cabinet through the Education links below