Playtime Children Go Back to School with Backpacks … and Educational Rights!

Posted by on Sep 1, 2017 in Blog, Featured Stories |

Back-to-School Backpacks

Photo by Jordan Burns

By Jamila Larson, Executive Director

Last week, 462 children went back to school with brand new backpacks filled with school supplies thanks to more than 35 generous donors! Having a new, sturdy backpack of quality that doesn’t match what all the other kids in the shelter have helps children feel excited about returning to school, ready to learn. But we know that for many children we serve, school does not always feel like a nurturing learning environment.

This year, Playtime is adding another element to our back-to-school initiative: We created educational outreach flyers to help families protect their child’s right to learn. Many people are not aware that every school is mandated by federal law to have a Homeless Liaison, for example, who can help children access transportation, clothing and other assistance. Nearly every DCPS and charter school require school uniforms, creating another barrier for our families. Legally, schools are not allowed to keep students out of class for not wearing the right clothes. Nevertheless, in practice, it happens. For example, last year, one of our preteen students was sent to detention for wearing polka dot socks.

We recently joined the “Every Student Every Day” coalition working to end school push-out (suspensions, detentions, expulsions), which we know disproportionately impact the children we serve. Here are some examples of what our students experienced last school year:

  • A 4-year-old in pre-k who lives in a transitional housing program was repeatedly sent home throughout the day last year allegedly for not listening. He is extremely bright and puts complicated puzzles together in short periods of time, loves playing with trains in Playtime, and knows every volunteer by name.
  • A 2nd grade girl living at the overflow shelter motel with her five brothers was suspended for a week for fighting—behavior we’ve never seen at Playtime. She loves to dance, likes to look at herself in the mirror, and given her large family in close quarters, sometimes likes to play alone.
  • We gave 13-year-old boy living in emergency shelter a beautiful new backpack filled with school supplies last year. Shortly thereafter, an upperclassman stole it from him, proudly wearing it the very next day. The 13-year-old punched him to get it back, and was suspended for a week.
  • A 14-year-old girl with a long trauma history was expelled from her school for hitting a security guard while living in family shelter. While she was in limbo for several weeks waiting to be told what alternative placement she would be referred to, she became a victim of child sex trafficking and was taken by a pimp to Los Angeles where she was found by child welfare authorities.

The Playtime Project is committed to empowering parents to advocate for their children’s rights to reduce school push-out and protect every child’s right to an education. This September, we will hire our first-ever social worker, whose role will include educational advocacy for families. We are also excited to welcome seven social work and masters in counseling student interns from Catholic, Trinity and Gallaudet universities this week.

To us, back-to-school is more than a backpack. It’s ensuring that all of the children we serve feel like Playtime has their back!

Jamila ran Playtime as a volunteer since it was founded in 2003 and assumed the role as first full-time Executive Director in 2009. In 2012, she was named a Washingtonian of the Year by Washingtonian magazine for her leadership of Playtime.