The Other 60 Percent

Flooding adds thousands of students to district homeless rolls

The flood waters that deluged northern Colorado last month left more than a dozen school districts hustling to provide basic services to thousands of students newly-designated as homeless.

That means help with transportation to and from school even if students are now living far from their home schools or in other districts. It means free lunches, new school clothes, new backpacks, and fee waivers for things like after-school care or full-day kindergarten.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A family received donated items at Greeley’s Bella Romero Elementary School, where nearly 300 students were classified as homeless after the flooding. <em>Photo courtesy of Theresa Myers.</em>

While administrators are happy to help their flood-ravaged families get back on track, and community donations and volunteer efforts have eased the pain, the sudden surge in students legally classified as homeless is both overwhelming and costly.

In Weld County School District 6, where 800 students are newly homeless, the district has been spending about $1,000 a day to transport displaced students from temporary quarters to their home schools, in some cases sending buses far afield to pick up students doubled up with relatives or staying in hotels. Under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school districts are required to provide students classified as homeless with the services they need to stay in school.

“We are just treading water,” said Theresa Myers, the district’s director of communications. “We are scrambling to find the money.”

While districts are using their reserves, McKinney-Vento grants or other resources to pay the bills right now, additional help will soon arrive in the form of a $750,000 federal grant that state education officials were notified about earlier this week. Called Project SERV, for School Emergency Response to Violence, the grant program is meant to help school districts restore the learning environment after violence or disaster.

“I am so enormously excited about it,” said Trish Boland, who will coordinate the grant process for the Colorado Department of Education.

She said the money, which could start arriving in late November, will reimburse affected districts for expenses such as transportation for homeless students, overtime incurred by staff helping with flood relief and mental health services for students experiencing anxiety or other symptoms in the flood’s aftermath.

While about 30 districts are eligible for Project SERV funds, Boland said administrators from a few less-severely affected districts have already offered to defer their chance at the money so that harder-hit districts can get more.

Rising homeless numbers

According to Colorado Department of Education estimates, up to 4,000 students in 14 districts could be classified as homeless because their homes were destroyed or damaged by the floods or made inaccessible because of road closures.

While Weld 6 will likely post the biggest numbers, other districts have seen huge numbers as well, often double or triple what they would normally see this time of year. In St. Vrain Valley schools, nearly 300 of the district’s 445 homeless students have been so designated because of the flooding. In Boulder Valley schools, it’s 175 of 413; in Thompson, it’s 75 of about 200; and in the 3,400-student Johnstown-Milliken district, it’s 28 of 33.

The recent flooding is by no means the only natural disaster to create a sudden bump in students classified as homeless, but it certainly represents a worst case scenario.

“The magnitude of the flood has been greater,” said Dana Scott, state coordinator for the education of homeless children and youth at CDE.

To compare, three recent wildfires — the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires in June 2012 and the Black Forest Fire in June 2013 — made around 250 students in three districts eligible for homeless services under the McKinney-Vento Act, according to ballpark estimates from the Colorado Department of Education.

While a homeless designation under McKinney-Vento can make students eligible for an array of services from their districts, it can be a jarring term for parents, one that conjures up images of sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street. Many families don’t equate staying temporarily with a relative or staying in their own home without water or electricity with homelessness, but both qualify under the law.

Some district staff working with newly-designated homeless families have opted to use the word “displaced” instead of homeless, hoping to take the sting out of their official classification.

“It’s less catastrophic,” said Boland.

Because of the sheer numbers of impacted families and the need to spread the word quickly about the little-known McKinney-Vento law, several districts trained teachers, campus monitors or other staff to identify and connect with students eligible for homeless services. In addition, staff from the Colorado Department of Education and homeless liaisons from several unaffected districts volunteered to travel north and help out.

Jana Ramchander, homeless liaison for the Thompson School District, said of impacted families, “They are just in shock. A lot of them are not aware of the resources available to them.”

The transportation maze

For district transportation directors, the past few weeks have been a daily scramble to track down and transport flood-impacted students, many of whom are still moving around.

“I have families moving from campground to campground,” said Ramchander.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students at Centennial Elementary in Evans arrive at school the first day district schools were open after the flooding. <em>Photo courtesy of Theresa Myers.</em>

Under McKinney-Vento, districts must ensure that students can get to and from school, but the “how” is flexible. It can include traditional busing, taxis, passes for city transit and mileage reimbursement for parents who can drive their kids. With yellow buses often the first choice, transportation staff have adjusted existing routes, created new ones, partnered with neighboring districts and combined students at different school levels on the same bus.

“To get them to school is a challenge,” said Myers. “To get them to school on time is another challenge.”

In Weld 6, where buses are already stretched thin with additional runs, some teachers have volunteered to transport displaced students to and from school. In Loveland, the Thompson School District is using its Chevy Suburban fleet to shuttle some homeless students.

In St. Vrain, the district is providing gas money to some families who must travel long distances in their own vehicles to get their kids to school. One such family is commuting to their Longmont school from temporary quarters in south Denver.

“They really want to stay attached to their school,” said Luis Chavez, the district’s homeless liaison. “They’re doing everything possible.”

A pop-up school

One of the goals of the McKinney-Vento Act is to ensure that students experiencing housing crises don’t miss much, if any school. Toward that end, officials in the St. Vrain Valley district hastily created a new school for 700 students who normally attend Lyons Elementary School and Lyons Middle/Senior High, which are still without water and power.

“Those families wanted to stay together,” said Regina Renaldi, the district’s assistant superintendent of priority programs. “The community has just rallied like I can’t even believe.”

District staff repurposed Main Street School in downtown Longmont for the Lyons students, some of whom are classified as homeless and some of whom are not. Special education programs were moved out of the building to other sites and district staff drove trucks to the two out-of-commission schools to gather furnishings, supplies and even the contents of kids’ lockers.

While roads to the elementary school were passable, the district had to obtain permission from a family to drive through their property to get to the middle/senior high school because a bridge was out.

Meeting needs, bracing for the long haul

Besides getting students to and from school, administrators and volunteers in flood-impacted districts have worked hard to ensure that newly homeless students have food, clothes and school supplies. To start, many children were immediately signed up for free school meals, which under the law, doesn’t require the usual income verification paperwork.

In Weld 6, three schools started providing free dinners to flood-impacted families starting Monday. In the Thompson district, Ramchander said the Rotary Club is providing backpacks filled with weekend food provisions to send home with students through its Kid Pack program.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Volunteers hold some of the 2,200 new backpacks and school supplies that arrived the week of the flooding from Feed the Children. <em>Photo courtesy of Dana Scott.</em>

In one fortunate coincidence, a semi-truck loaded with 2,200 new backpacks and school supplies from “Feed the Children” happened to be heading to Colorado during the driving rains the precipitated the flood. Although the backpacks were not specifically intended for flood victims, once the magnitude of the disaster became clear, the distribution plan changed.

“We reworked some of the numbers so we had more backpacks go up north,” said Scott.

While many district officials are quick to praise staff and community helpers for generous donations and tireless efforts since the floods, it may be a long haul for some families. In Weld 6, the district is gearing up for the next big need among homeless students: warm clothing.

In St. Vrain Valley, many families remain worried about the safety of their water-logged homes.

“One of the biggest problems they’re dealing with right now is the debris and the mold…It’s a time bomb,” said Chavez. “They feel like they’re going to start getting ill.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.