Niani Scott anticipates heading back to school each fall. Admitted to a dual degree program, she now studies journalism and political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Her love of writing sparked during high school, when Niani won awards for writing “poetry focused on social injustice.”
And it was at high school that she was personally impacted by injustice.
The summer before starting at Plainfield East, Niani and her mother became homeless. A friend who lived nearby let them move in, doubling-up to avoid a shelter.
Niani started high school. She earned honor-roll grades. She became a cheerleader, joined Student Council, competed in poetry slams. Meanwhile, a dean directed a school officer to investigate the family’s homelessness.
The officer talked to neighbors and surveilled the mother and daughter. Eventually, the school filed to disenroll Niani, alleging she claimed to be homeless so she could attend that school.
Niani’s recalls that her mom, Jamilah – “my number one advocate” – called the toll-free helpline to the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. CCH offers legal aid to students because doubling-up out of financial necessity is recognized as homeless, under the federal McKinney-Vento Act regulating schools. To ensure stability, homeless students can enroll in the school where they are now living or remain in the school they originally attended.
The Law Project defended the family at a dispute resolution hearing that summer. Weeks later, on the day before she was to start sophomore year, the dean phoned to tell Niani, “Don’t come in tomorrow.” Her family lost the hearing.
“There was a very aggressive private investigation. The hearing process was contentious and long,” said Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes. “By that point, the family felt very unwelcome.”
Niani recalled, “I’d done my summer homework for Advanced Placement U.S. History and then to be told I can’t come back?”
Discouraged by the hostility, the Scotts decided not to appeal. After two weeks, she and her mom found a new school with assistance from her attorneys, including a private law firm CCH secured to co-counsel the case, Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. Burke Warren generously helped cover Niani’s tuition at the private Chicago school.
It was a long drive to and from school, but Niani continued to do well. She also played on the softball team. Better yet, she and her mom moved into their own home.
Niani learned of scholarships to attend a foreign exchange program. She won a corporate scholarship that covered her junior year abroad, and the South African school – British International College – offered a second award to stay through senior year. She became editor-in-chief of her Johannesburg school’s newspaper.
After graduating, Niani returned home. She spent a gap year working at Burke Warren to save for college. She won several scholarships, including one of the renewable $2,500 awards presented this summer by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Niani continues to excel in school. Recently named a prestigious Roger Ebert Fellow, she also writes for the Daily Illini. “I love it. I literally love it,” Niani said.
And what would she tell a homeless student pressured to leave a school?
“Although times are hard,” said Niani, “with resources like the Coalition for the Homeless, you’ll always have somebody.”
– Anne Bowhay, story & Jeff Foy, photography