Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: CPS layoffs hit home — and homeless

Patricia Scott, laid off Friday from her job as a clerk at Prosser Career Academy after 23 years, earned a reputation as a passionate advocate for the school's many homeless students. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times
Patricia Scott, laid off Friday from her job as a clerk at Prosser Career Academy after 23 years, earned a reputation as a passionate advocate for the school’s many homeless students. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

By Mark Brown, Chicago Sun-Times columnist

There were only two students identified as homeless at Prosser Career Academy in 1996 when the principal made Patricia Scott the school’s liaison to a new federal program for Students in Temporary Living Situations.

The number jumped to eight soon after that, and at its high point, ballooned all the way to 81 homeless kids.

At the end of this past school year, Prosser counted 68 homeless students among its 1,400 enrollees, 26 of whom were seniors.

“They all graduated,” Scott told me Wednesday. “I’m very proud of that.”

That group of 26 seniors will be the last class of homeless students Scott shepherds to their high school degree at Prosser.

On Friday, she was among 1,000 Chicago Public Schools employees to learn they were getting laid off.

Scott is not a teacher. She’s a clerk, one of 521 support staff included in the layoff tallies.

When we talk about CPS layoffs, we usually concern ourselves primarily with teachers. But Scott is a good example of why we shouldn’t overlook what’s lost when many of those support jobs are eliminated.

During her 20 years as the Northwest Side school’s homeless liaison, Scott earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for her students, not only helping them receive the free school supplies and bus passes to which they are entitled, but also going the extra mile by supplying the mothering that so many of them desperately need.

“You could see how she cared so deeply for her students and how they respected and trusted her,” said Hannah Willage, an organizer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “It is heartbreaking to know her students will not have her to return to and that she is one of 1,000 staff and teachers impacted by the layoffs. These layoffs hit homeless students hard.”

It was Willage who alerted me to Scott’s layoff, which I mention in case prospective employers get the idea she is the type to run to the press. She’s not.

But she did agree to speak with me. I arrived at her door the same moment as the mailman delivering the registered letter with official notification of her layoff.

“They say they’re putting me in a recall pool,” Scott said after taking a moment to read it. She didn’t sound very optimistic.

At age 57, Scott is concerned about finding another job, but not as concerned as she is about the homeless students under her care, many of whom stay in touch with her long after leaving school.

She knows the time and difficulty involved in building relationships with homeless students, many of whom don’t trust adults because of traumas suffered in their young lives.

“I don’t know where I’d be if it wasn’t for her,” said Liz Rodriguez, 27, who just completed a bachelor’s degree in information technology.

Rodriguez told me she was kicked out of the house at 13 and eventually came to live with an older sister, but was left homeless again when the sister moved out of town.

She credits Scott with guiding her through her senior year and giving her a “base” on which to build a life. The same goes for her husband, Jose, a U.S. Marine who was also in the Prosser homeless program, Rodriguez said.

Jasmine Edwards, 26, was put out of her home at 16, and says Scott not only raised money to help her pay the security deposit on an apartment but also gave her a vision of what she could accomplish with an education.

“She’s been like a mother. She never judges you,” said Edwards, who turned a part-time high school job into being a Wal-Mart store manager in Indiana.

If there are any principals in need of a strong candidate to take over their school’s homeless program, I know where to find one.