Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 | 2 a.m.
How to help
For information about helping homeless students in the Clark County School District, call the outreach office at 855-6682. Whitney Elementary School can be reached at 799-7790.
In the fall, Jack Rolfe came home from school and immediately began packing up his toys.
The fifth grader at the private Merryhill School in Summerlin told his mother he wanted to donate them to students at Whitney Elementary School, which he had visited that day with his class.
Not only did some Whitney students not have toys, he said, many didn’t have enough to eat.
After seeing how her son had been affected by his visit to Whitney — which has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the Clark County School District — Suzanne Rolfe joined Jack’s class on a return visit Tuesday to the campus near Tropicana Avenue and Boulder Highway.
“I wanted to see the school for myself,” she said. “I’m glad I did.”
Four years ago Merryhill “adopted” Whitney. The private school collects holiday gifts for students and holds annual drives for food and toiletries. Merryhill’s fifth graders assist with deliveries and read to Whitney kindergartners during their visits.
“It’s hard for our children to comprehend” the challenges the Whitney students face, Merryhill Principal Kimberly Roden said. “They have breakfast every morning. They come to school with lunches.”
Just 21 miles separate the two campuses, but the economic gulf could hardly be wider.
Merryhill, with an annual tuition of $10,550, has about 200 students in grades K-5.
Many of Whitney’s 600 students walk to school from tiny homes that shelter multiple families. Some have no electricity, heat or running water. Others live in public housing or weekly motels.
Eighty-five percent of Whitney students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. And Whitney Principal Sherrie Gahn estimates the same percentage lacks adequate, regular nighttime shelter — meeting the federal definition of homeless. (The district doesn’t release the number of homeless students by campus to avoid stigmatizing schools.)
Gahn and her staff have worked to secure food, clothing and basic medical care for students. Donations of money, goods and services from local trade groups and organizations help fill the gaps that are beyond the school’s budget.
Gahn spends about $750 a week on food to provide weekend meals for 200 children. Every Friday, the Whitney staff assembles 200 plastic bags of easy-to-prepare food items for students to take home. If she had the money, Gahn said, she would send food home with at least 200 more.
The assistance, Gahn said, has led to improved academic performance, behavior and attendance.
The need districtwide has increased as Southern Nevada’s economy has declined. As of this week, the district had identified 4,835 homeless students, up from 3,529 in February 2008.
Lori Friel, president of Merryhill’s parent-teacher organization, came up with the idea to adopt Whitney about four years ago.
After learning of the tremendous need at the school, “I knew we had to help,” she said.
The experience has taught the students empathy, which isn’t an easy lesson to deliver in a traditional classroom, said Merryhill fifth grade teacher Brian Williams.
There was some trepidation among this year’s fifth graders before their first visit to Whitney, Williams said.
“We told them, ‘They’re just like everybody else. It’s a beautiful school, but some of the kids don’t always have clean clothes or enough to eat,’ ” he said.
On Tuesday, Merryhill fifth graders admired the spacious Whitney campus with its decorated walls and outdoor turtle pond. There was no talk of pity.
“I love reading to them and seeing all their little faces,” said Bella Williams, a Merryhill student. “This is a good school.”
During their visit, the students delivered 18-gallon tubs filled with ramen noodles, fruit cups and snacks. Stacked against the wall of the Whitney multipurpose room, the 33 tubs were an impressive display.
Friel, of the Merryhill PTO, asked how long the supply would last.
“Probably a month,” Gahn said. “If we need to use it for after-school snacks, maybe three weeks.”
The Merryhill parents and students fell silent.
“I think we’re going to need to do another food drive,” Friel said.
Jack and Suzanne Rolfe, who were standing nearby, both nodded.
“Let’s start today,” Suzanne Rolfe said.