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Programs Help Transitional Families Keep Kids in School

Two years ago, Jessica had a steady job, a home and three children enrolled in Godwin Heights Public Schools. That was before she started experiencing fibromyalgia-like symptoms that made her daily routine difficult to follow. 

Soon, she found herself without a job, no car, and no house.

“I couldn’t work anymore and things got worse and worse and we ended up losing the house. The car engine blew and we ended up in a shelter for a month,” said Smith, who, with her family, would spend the next two years living away from her community in the house of an elderly couple she met in a new church.

All through the changes, her children’s education continued, uninterrupted, at Godwin Heights, including summer school for one of them and graduation for another.

“They didn’t want to move from Godwin Heights, they liked the school and their teachers,” said Jessica, who was glad her children were able to get help when she was unable to provide a home for them. “My older son had to go to summer school and (school workers) were able to pay for bus tickets to school from the house in the northeast side to Godwin High School.”

The continuation of children’s education is one of the key components of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, the federal legislation that seeks to help children and youth break the barriers to education if they find themselves without a permanent home.

Last year, nearly 3,000 students enrolled in Kent County schools lacked a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and qualified as homeless under McKinney-Vento, a staggering 226 percent increase since 2008. The increase shows the impact the economic crisis had in families, said Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent at Kent Intermediate School District.

“The economic recession that started in 2008 was an equal opportunity disaster that displaced many well-to-do families into unknown homeless territory,” he said. “Families who had their home foreclosed had to move in with other families, some families lived in districts they could no longer afford to live in. We’ve had our numbers skyrocketing.”

The increase in the county’s homeless population also mirrors what has happened nationwide. According to data released last year by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, during the 2010-2011 school year there were more than 1 million homeless students enrolled in U.S. preschools and K-12 schools, a 13 percent increase from the previous school year. Experts agree the data underestimates the total number of homeless children in the country, as those not enrolled in public schools and those too young to be enrolled in school are not accounted for.

According to that data, Michigan was among the states with the largest percentage increase in the numbers of homeless students, with a 38 percent increase from the previous year. Other high-increase states were Kentucky, 47 percent; Utah, 47 percent; West Virginia, 38 percent and Mississippi, 35 percent.  

Casey Gordon, Kent ISD special populations consultant, heads the Kent ISD consortium of homeless liaisons. She agreed the recession clearly affected the homeless numbers, adding that compounding the effect of the recession was the reduction of cash benefits for families in need. Preliminary data for the 2012-2013 school year suggests the number of homeless students has stabilized, but the need at local shelters and for affordable housing is far from declining.

Most Kent County districts have reported numbers similar to the previous school year. And all but two charter schools reported having enrolled homeless students this fall. Finalized numbers for 2013 will not be available until early fall, but the number of homeless students declined from 1,899 in 2011 to 1,867 in 2012.

Servicing those in need

Gordon said that Kent ISD started managing the McKinney-Vento grant for local districts two years ago. The state receives about $2.8 million to run the program that requires schools to:

  • Receive a free, appropriate public education
  • Enroll in school immediately, even if lacking documents that are normally required
  • Enroll in the local school or continue at their school of origin (if feasible and determined to be in the best interest of the student)
  • Receive transportation to and from school of origin if requested
  • Receive educational services comparable to other children, according to their needs

Schools in the area work hard to make sure all the families needing the services know how to find help. The main rule is that all decisions must be made in the best interest of the child, said Heidi VanAman, the homeless liaison for Thornapple Kellogg Public Schools.

She said at TK, transportation is the largest expense and the main need for families. “When you’re in a rural area like us, they may become homeless and the closest family or friend is 25 miles away, we still have to provide those services.”

Schools might provide gas cards, bus passes for public transportation, or provide school transportation for students.

Getting the word out about services available can also be a great task. Some families don’t seek services they would qualify for due to cultural differences, lack of awareness or because they are embarrassed to be considered “homeless.”

That’s why administrators are ditching the term and using terms like ‘transitional’ or ‘someone who qualifies as McKinney-Vento’ to avoid stereotyping families, VanAman said.

“We try to rephrase (it) and we call them ‘transitional’ instead because it doesn’t have the same negative connotation… like you’re sleeping under a bridge,” VanAman said. “No one wants to be considered homeless and the word transitional opens the door and makes people feel more relaxed.”

Agreeing was Aliya Armstrong, who just finished her first year as homeless coordinator at Kentwood Public Schools.

Kentwood is part of the Kent School Services Network, which brings health and human services into the school buildings, removing barriers for families and helping students stay in school.  KSSN partners with seven school districts in Kent County and might include staff such as “community school coordinator,” a “clinician,” staff from the Department of Human Services (DHS) and nurses or health aides.

Armstrong said the district works hard to let people know what services are available and how to get to them. In addition to their partnership with KSSN, they have posters in every school’s buildings with the name and contact information for the program. Similar fliers have been posted in city hall, library, police departments and shelters. And then, she said, there’s word of mouth.

“You’ll get a call saying Mrs. so and so’s house burnt down and she’s at this hotel,” she said. “We have eyes and ears out in the district and they’re on it and we’ll make contact and see what we can do to help.”

Administrators agree the lack of affordable housing in the area is the greatest challenge to deal with. 

“Shelter and housing are the most difficult of all, because we cannot provide housing. That’s the most difficult component,” Armstrong said. “You have people calling, sobbing, in tears asking, ‘What am I going to do?’ We don’t have the answer to that.”

Gordon, the Kent ISD coordinator, said aggravating the problem is the fact that while under the federal law students may qualify as homeless, other federal legislation sets different requirements for the same families to qualify for assistance. “It’s really difficult for families who have too much income to qualify (for assistance) but not enough to pay for food and rent and medicine. That’s a difficult spot to be in.”

Homeless teenagers

David Baas, director of special education at Godwin Heights is also the district coordinator for homeless students. He said there are many reasons why families find themselves homeless. At Godwin, there were 73 students from 27 different families who are homeless this spring.

“We’ve had a couple of families who knew they were going to be foreclosed on or forcibly removed from their homes but I would say more of our students who were homeless were mothers escaping domestic abuse, those living in homeless shelters or high school students who ran away from home and were living with a friend,” he said.

Families with teenagers represent a different challenge, as only two area shelters are equipped to receive families with children older than 13.

“We try desperately to keep them in school,” Gordon said. “It is going to be their best tool to help eliminate the cycle (of poverty). If they can stay in school, it increases the potential for secondary training. A lot of unaccompanied minors end up dropping out of school to get a job and never come back to school. That limits their chances to have stable housing, a stable job and earn enough to stay out of poverty (in the future).”

Gordon said they hope a new school opening in August will provide some options for homeless students and other school dropouts.

The Covenant House Academy Grand Rapids, run by faith-based The Covenant House Michigan, will provide educational and vocational programs for homeless, runaway and at-risk youth ages 16 to 22.  

The charter school, authorized by Grand Valley State University, will be housed at Grand Rapids Campau Park Elementary, one of the 10 buildings being closed at GRPS. Covenant runs three similar schools in Detroit.

They are loved

The increase in need has meant that schools must work harder to provide students with the basics they need for a successful school year, and most schools will collect winter clothing, toiletries and backpacks full of school supplies for students.

Armstrong, the Kentwood homeless liaison, said the district is fortunate to have the support of the larger community, including area churches, to make sure students do know that there’s someonewho cares for them.

The district has strong connections with area churches who provide hand-made toiletry bags for students on Christmas, and runs its own Clothing Closet for all students who need it.

“We want them to know that there’s someone out there who loves them,” Armstrong said.

Jessica, the mother of the three Godwin Heights students who found themselves homeless two years ago, said the support of the community was vital for her family to make it through difficult times. She recalls last Christmas, when school workers filled the family’s kitchen cabinets with enough food supplies to last three months. “The staff at school has been awesome in helping us through the tough times,” said Jessica, who was headed to a job interview the next day. “We still have our struggles here and there, but we’re doing better now”

As for her children, Jessica said she was surprised by their resilience. “They bounced back pretty good,” she said.

Disclaimer: Names have been changed to protect the family’s identity.

Homeless Students Enrolled in Michigan Public Schools 2009-2012 

Kent County homeless student enrollment 2011-2012

Connect: Kent ISD’s efforts

Kent School Services Network

2012 National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty homeless students report 

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