CHICAGO – She began high school in a shelter, doing homework on the floor of the bathroom. It was the only place with lights after 9 p.m. Her senior year was spent raising her little brother when her mother disappeared on cocaine binges.
"The more it went on, the worse I felt," said the 18-year-old, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because she didn't want her classmates to know her family's troubled history.
"I'd come to school and be like, 'I don't know why I'm here," she said. "Then I'd be home and I'd be like, 'I really don't want to be here either."'
Many public school students with similarly chaotic personal lives could soon benefit from an approach that's more often reserved for the well-to-do: boarding school.
Chicago school officials are asking for proposals to run such schools. They admit the idea poses big challenges, not the least of which is the high cost and opposition from some homeless advocates.
"The idea of having a stable home situation is ideal. If that's not the case, that shouldn't preclude you from being able to focus in school," said Josh Edelman, head of the office of new schools in the nation's third-largest school system.
The student who requested anonymity will graduate next month and plans to attend college. She said the city's plan would help some students get "out of a situation that's hurting them," but that others would be better off with their families.
"In situations where things are hard, their parents may be the thing that helps them keep it together," she said.
Residential public schools are usually academies that specialize in math and science, although there are several that aim to help children from low-income neighborhoods succeed.
Chicago serves about 10,000 homeless students a year. Nationwide, more than 907,000 students were homeless in 2005-06, according to government statistics believed elevated during that period by young victims of hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
The cost of housing students deterred a similar effort in Chicago in the 1990s and remains a problem this time around as well. The school system spends about $7,350 per student each year on pupils in grades 6 through 12; residential schools can cost between $30,000 and $50,000 per pupil, according to school officials.
What's more, homeless advocates say they fear students would be stigmatized or isolated, and worry about separating children from their families.
"Kids are deeply connected to their families, and while there is bad in some situations, there's also a lot of connectedness and good," said Rene Heybach, director of the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "You have to be really cautious when you begin these public enterprises that have the potential to drive a wedge."
Heybach also questioned spending upward of $30,000 per pupil to house a small number of students instead of, for example, using the money for transportation that could help many more homeless children.
She echoed a concern she said she's heard from others: "The Chicago Public Schools has a lot of trouble just operating quality schools. Now they're launching into housing?"
Edelman said participation would be voluntary. The idea, he said, is part of a broader plan to improve schools and offer options in neighborhoods across the city through charter, contract and performance schools that are free from many district controls.
Officials said the soonest a boarding school could open would be 2010, but a residential program tied to an existing school could be operating next year.
A charter school called North Lawndale College Prep is considering partnering with a nonprofit group called Teen Living, which has worked with homeless youth for about 25 years.
North Lawndale, in a neighborhood where the unemployment rate is almost triple the city average, would focus on academics and Teen Living would provide shelter and support services.
While the shelter would likely only have about 20 beds, some students might only stay a few days or weeks, so many students could benefit in a school year, said John Horan, the school's director of expansion. The school estimates 5 to 8 percent of its 525 students are homeless at any one time during the school year.
One former North Lawndale student who would have taken advantage of a boarding option is Tinesheia Howard. Now a 19-year-old college student, she spent 18 months in a homeless shelter during high school, and Horan often gave her rides to school.
Howard remembers how she couldn't start her homework until the clamor of the shelter died down with the "lights out" call at 9 p.m. She washed her clothes in a sink and failed an algebra class because she was so tired she would fall asleep at her desk.
"I think it's a great idea," Howard said of the boarding school idea. "You could be in a positive atmosphere. I was in a negative atmosphere — there was so much arguing. I just couldn't deal with it."