Chicago-based high school student Lane Gunderman will be one of the few kids starting their college career on a full scholarship at Stanford University this fall, but he is also one of the extremely few students in the history of the school who was homeless when he earned his scholarship.
Gunderman’s family had always been poor, but six years ago, they were forced to move into a shelter after their father left. Along with the move, Gunderman and his siblings also enrolled in public school for the first time—their mother had homeschooled them up until then. There wasn’t a lot of privacy and not much to do at the shelter, so Gunderman focused on his schoolwork. He originally enrolled at Burley Elementary School, but Gunderman’s teachers, noticing how bright and dedicated he was, suggested he apply to University of Chicago Lab High School, a selective private high school established by the University of Chicago.
Gunderman thrived at the Lab School; he made the final round of the Intel Science Talent Search, which is one of the country’s most elite high school science competitions, and was ultimately awarded the scholarship to Stanford.
Gunderman’s story is inspiring—he clearly worked hard, and it paid off—but it’s also, to some extent, a good illustration of his luck. Scholastic reports that there are an estimated one million homeless students in America, and the number of homeless students in the Chicago area has risen 22 percent in the past year. Gunderman exemplifies a strong dedication to and love of learning, but he wouldn’t have gotten to the Lab School without his teachers noticing and promoting his academic efforts, and he wouldn’t have gotten into Stanford without the Lab School.
Gunderman’s affection for school does not make him unique among other homeless kids. Denise Ross, a supervisor for homeless education programs in Maryland, says that for homeless students, “School is a safe haven. . . .They want to be in school.” Homeless students also often blend in with their fellow classmates either because they don’t want to be recognized as homeless or because their teachers don’t notice them. Sometimes, albeit less commonly, successful homeless education programs help homeless students blend in by providing kids with things like shoes, technological resources and showers.
The McKinny-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, enacted by the federal government in 1987, requires that every school district provide homeless students with equal access to public education. This means making school feel as normal for homeless students as it does for other students, and providing them with clothes, food or other essentials that they might not get anywhere else. However, the program is underfunded: $65 million a year goes to only 3,000 of the nation’s 15,000 school districts.
Gunderman’s unique situation helped him get noticed and ultimately propelled him to success. But, if anything, his story is a reminder of the importance of supporting homeless students, who just want—and deserve—the same opportunities as their peers.