Conversations between Aliya Armstrong and her students usually begin with the same question: “How are you doing?”
For the students who show up in Armstrong’s East Kentwood High School office, that query often results in a complicated answer. As the district’s homeless coordinator, she sees many students who have been through struggles and disruptions that make being “fine” seem close to impossible.
Take Kessia. The senior, who did not want her last name published, has earned a 3.7 grade-point average while cheerleading, running track and working after school and on weekends to buy food for herself and her sister. At the beginning of the school year, the family was evicted from their home.
“There was a period of time when we had nowhere to go,” said Kessia, an articulate, petite young woman. “We had to take all of our stuff out of the house, and we had to throw a lot of it away because we could only pay for a certain amount of storage.”
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For awhile she told nobody at school, staring at the address line for college applications without anything to write down.
“I knew I needed some help. So, I came to see Mrs. Armstrong,” she said.
Armstrong helped her family receive services through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act, the federal legislation that seeks to help children and youth break the barriers to education if they find themselves without a permanent home. That’s Armstrong’s job: to keep homeless students in school and equipped with the resources they need.
“I can talk to her and be honest,” said Kessia, who now lives with her grandmother in Grand Rapids and takes the city bus to school. “Mrs. Armstrong knows what to say because she’s been there. We are really fortunate to have someone like her working in this district because there are lots of kids in the district with similar situations or even worse.”
‘A Statistic in My Own Right’
Armstrong can relate to Kessia in many ways. Rewind to 1994 when she was a senior at Creston High School. A cheerleader, Homecoming queen and student council vice president, Armstrong was passionate about school and she excelled. But outside of her academic and athletic success, she faced turmoil not typical for student royalty.
“Uniquely, I am a product of the environment that I serve,” she said.
She lived in a Grand Rapids-based domestic violence shelter at age 15 with her sister, brother and mother after they escaped an abusive situation in Flint, where she grew up. They later moved from the shelter to a safe house.
“I am a statistic in my very own right. It is amazing how life changes and turns and puts you in particular areas.”
Now she works with the district’s approximately 250 homeless students, a number that is always fluctuating. She does everything from setting up legally authorized services for them, to providing them with clothes from the district’s clothing pantry filled with donated items. She checks in with students often, making sure they are on track with classes and that things are stable in their lives.
“She is great about helping them with whatever she is allowed to do, getting them the right food, clothing for proper warmth,” said East Kentwood’s head counselor Kathryn VanOveren. “I think over the past few years Aliya’s done a great job of marrying counseling skills with organizational skills and understanding the state law.”
The district’s homeless population is not unique. In Kent ISD schools, there were 2,368 homeless students in Kent County as of February.
“I expect the count to go a bit higher as the weather starts to warm up,” said Casey Gordon, Kent ISD special populations consultant. “The count has already eclipsed last year’s total.” Year-end homeless student totals for Kent ISD were 2,157 in 2013-2014 and 2,241 in 2012-2013.
“We try to keep them in their school of origin, which is the school they attended before the homelessness took place,” Armstrong said. “Part of the law is to keep some continuity, same teachers and friends instead of uprooting them completely. They’ve already left their home.”
When first working with families, Armstrong gets the details of their situation. For instance, she took a phone call with a mother who had lived in a motel for nine months with her children, before moving out of state and then back to Grand Rapids. With no assets in her name following a divorce, finding permanent housing was very difficult.
“It’s always something heart-wrenching,” Armstrong said. Medical issues that cause financial stress, a record of multiple evictions, and child removal by Children’s Protective Services are among reasons a child loses his or her permanent home. Students awaiting foster-care placement also qualify for services under McKinney-Vento.
“We had seven students over Spring Break who landed in shelters,” she said.
A major obstacle can be getting homeless students to school at all. Armstrong understands the stress and guilt parents face when struggling to get their child involved in academics while living at a motel or shelter.
“As a school we need that child here to get this education, get a warm meal, have some normalcy to that routine,” she added. “But as as a mother do I get it? Absolutely.”
There Were No Excuses
Armstrong, who has master’s degrees in English and school-counseling education from Grand Valley State University, and a bachelor’s degree in education from Western Michigan University, has served as homeless coordinator for three years. Prior to that, she was as a counselor at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Union High School and Gerald R. Ford Middle School. She formerly taught at Union, Iroquois Middle School, and Park High School for pregnant teenage mothers.
Armstrong reflected that when she was in the shelter, school was her comfort zone.
“I think there was a celebration in being removed from the chaos and the hell that allowed me to say, ‘I’m pushing reset on life, and I’m going to get out of high school what I should have been gaining all this time,'” she said.
Good role models helped as well. Her mother, the late Wendy Forrest, was a no-nonsense parent. “She didn’t care that we were in a shelter; that was no excuse for me to not be on the honor roll.
“We’re not a family of crying over spilled milk,” she added. “We are a give-us-lemons-we-make-lemonade type of crew, very supportive and strong. It wasn’t a ‘woe is me.’ It wasn’t ‘this is going to break me.’ You have two roads to travel: You’ll either be a victor or a victim, and becoming a victim just was not an option.”
Armstrong, a runner and the mother of three young children, has been recognized for transforming herself physically by Women’s Lifestyle Magazine, Gazelle Girl and WOTV4Women. She also teaches Zumba at the Spartan Stores YMCA, in Wyoming. On crutches due to a sprained ankle in April, she finished the Fifth Third Riverbank Run 25K May 9.
The reason she challenges herself physically ties in with her job.
“I’m a proponent for every adult, especially in our positions, to have an outlet and a stress reliever. You can’t carry these stories home. You will find yourself in tears many days.
“I have been on the phone with a mom who says, ‘They’re here right now, Aliya. They are packing up the boxes.’ And she’s bawling. What do you do? What do you say?”
Where Her Heart Is
Sharing her story is one thing Armstrong does well, and it’s a way she gives students strength. Armstrong told Kessia that she can be inspirational for others.
“I’m super, super proud of you. You’ve got it,” Armstrong told Kessia, while they chatted in the high school office. “You and I are similar because hearing your story is going to help someone. You have a platform to minister to someone and encourage someone.”
Kessia plans to go to college next year, at Xavier University in Cincinnati or Butler University in Indianapolis, to major in communications and public relations. She said she is looking to the future withpride in her achievements.
“Because of all the hardships at home, I took a lot of pride in my grades and doing well in school because it was kind of the only thing in my life that was consistent and that I can be proud (of),” Kessia said.
Armstrong knows how much that really means.
“I love that I can speak words to my students and they are meaningful truths… I’ve walked this path and I know what it takes. I know the struggle. There’s something about me with the gritty, roll-your-sleeves-up population. That’s where I need to be in all areas of my life.
“That’s my calling.”