Editor’s Note: This Commentary is part of a special report exploring game-changing trends and innovations that have the potential to shake up the schoolhouse. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.
I have spent many years working in education as a teacher and social worker, and it is clear that schools are no longer just a learning environment for young people. As the number of students affected by homelessness or living at or below the poverty level continues to increase, the demand for services for those affected also increases. Schools have become sanctuaries that provide food, warmth, and support, with a little education thrown in. The reality is that learning takes a back seat for a child whose basic needs are not met.
Shining a light on youth homelessness galvanizes districts to confront the prevalence of homelessness and begin creating solutions. Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Act more than 30 years ago, issuing landmark legislation that recognized a shared responsibility among community members to care for young people who live without safe and stable housing. And in 2012, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness began a coordinated effort across federal agencies to end youth homelessness by 2020. Despite these efforts, homelessness continues to have a big impact on the academic and economic success of our students. Homelessness can contribute to students’ failing classes and affect their social-emotional well-being. For school districts, it can topple graduation rates.
It has been my challenge to find a better way to support these students to help them reach their full potential.
In 2015, I was the McKinney-Vento liaison for Kansas City Public Schools—which are located in the highest-poverty county in the state of Kansas. The community had nearly 1,200 identified homeless students and counting, and families were turning to our schools for help. But a lack of resources and funding to provide assistance compounded the problem. We couldn’t count on federal grant funds alone, which then rounded out to about $50 per student.
It was my responsibility to make sure students had the help they needed to continue their education. But I could not in good conscience continue to provide community-resource contacts to families, because we hadn’t had much luck getting help for them.
We had to get creative. I collaborated with our local mental-health center to create a list of almost 30 private organizations, elected officials, community leaders, and civic groups in our area. We brought everyone together for a call to action. If we were to end the cycle of homelessness within our community, we needed to do it together. We would focus as a community on our students’ needs, as well as the needs of their families. Our work has shown that when tackling homelessness, we must look at the whole picture.
The result? We created a community-backed program to help families facing homelessness. Called Impact Wednesday, the program supported the school system so that we could refer district families for wraparound services. It was named for the day of the week when agencies came together under one roof to create a one-stop-shop experience. We challenged every participating individual and organization to join forces and compile their gifts, talents, and resources in ways they hadn’t done before.
Impact Wednesday enlists partners to assist parents with employment, housing, and child care and to provide education classes on topics such as personal finance and health. The program seeks to guarantee that every family has a case manager to help them. Among other basic services, students receive assistance with enrollment and transportation to and from school.
This takes the pressure off the school district and responsibility and shares it across the community, giving everyone the opportunity to do what they do best.
As we broke down silos of communication that had existed in our community for years, there was a renewed understanding of collaboration. This is not about taking resources from one group and giving to another. It is a strategic and intentional partnership with a shared goal. Because no one agency or school can eliminate poverty, collaboration is essential to meeting the overwhelming needs of the homeless. Each partner can bring forth their unique resources. This realization, this coming together was our school district’s defining moment.
In August, I became the state coordinator for homeless education in Colorado. And though I have moved on, the work continues in Kansas City. The district has helped 224 families find permanent housing since we began this work three years ago.
When our communities unite with a common vision to end the cycle of poverty for homeless students, schools are better able to focus on what they do best: teaching our young people. And when they have a roof over their head, students can focus on what should matter most to them: getting the best possible education they can without worrying where they will lay their head once the school day has ended.
Background: Efforts to Support Homeless Students
By Lisa Stark
Today, nearly 1.3 million children attending public schools in America—or about 3 percent of all K-12 public school students—are identified as homeless. Their families are doubled up in houses or sleeping in shelters, in motels, or on the street. And nearly 95,000 of those students are unaccompanied youths, without a parent or legal guardian to rely on, according to 2014-15 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Homelessness is not just an urban problem. A 2017 study from researchers at the University of Chicago found the homeless rate among adolescents in rural communities is 4.4 percent, slightly higher than the 4.2 percent in cities. Homeless students can face overwhelming daily challenges, including stress, exhaustion, hunger, and embarrassment. They are also more likely to miss school and to drop out.
To combat the crisis, school districts must have a liaison to identify and help these students, a requirement under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act has also increased protections for homeless students—districts must now keep tabs on academic progress and report graduation and achievement rates specifically for homeless students.
Despite more thorough identification efforts, districts often run into challenges to assist these students because they lack sufficient funding and resources to do so.
But schools needn’t go it alone, as Kerry Wrenick’s work in Kansas City, Kan., shows. Wrenick succeeded in reducing the number of homeless students and families in the district through a communitywide program, bringing together local resource groups in a collaborative model. In just two years, those efforts reduced the number of homeless students by 25 percent.
Without the program, single mom Angela Jordan told Education Week, “We’d probably be out on the streets or living in our car.” Jordan and her two daughters had been crammed into a motel room after unexpectedly losing their housing. The program helped them move into an apartment just before Christmas in 2016. Under McKinney-Vento rules, the district also ensured her children remained in their original elementary school despite the move. School was “their safe zone,” according to Jordan.
Wrenick is now taking her efforts to a larger scale as the state coordinator for homeless education in Colorado, where she ensures the rights of the state’s 23,000 homeless students—as required by federal law—are upheld. A top priority is moving the needle on the state’s graduation rate for high-mobility students.
Wrenick stresses the importance of awareness and training to help school districts understand the services they are required to provide and the help they can leverage beyond the school system. “This is not an issue that doesn’t have an answer or a solution,” Wrenick said. “We just have to get everybody to the table to fix it.”
Nearly 1.3 million students in the United States are homeless—what can schools do to help? Correspondent Lisa Stark reports from one of the poorest districts in Kansas, which employs a unique program to help homeless students and their families:
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Homelessness