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.”

raising the curtain

Aurora high school students started rehearsing a musical about an earlier time — and discovered ‘harsh truths’ about today

Ebony Nash, left, sings during a rehearsal of Ragtime at Hinkley High School. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Nine weeks ago, more than 50 theater and choir students at Aurora’s Hinkley High School came together to begin work on a musical set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

At first, the kids did what high school students often do — cluster into familiar cliques, or self-segregate by race. Then the students started immersing themselves in the material.

The musical, “Ragtime,” intertwines the stories of a white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American couple to spotlight differences and commonalities in the American experience.

At the urging of their teachers and directors, the Hinkley students began to use the plot and characters to examine their own actions, prejudice and biases. About 92 percent of Hinkley’s more than 2,100 students are students of color, the vast majority of them Latino.

The cliques and segregation slipped away. The production began taking shape.

“Ragtime” gets its Hinkley High School debut on Thursday and will be performed again on Friday and Saturday.

Chalkbeat sat down with a group of students involved in the production as they were in final preparations to learn about what their experience had taught them. The following is a portion of that conversation, slightly condensed and rearranged for clarity:

Janelle Douglas, a 17-year-old senior who portrays a friend of one of the story’s main characters, said the first time she saw and read through Ragtime, “it was intense.” She often cries as she rehearses her solo, sung during a funeral.

DOUGLAS: “I thought, this is powerful. This is overwhelming. This is amazing.”

Pamela Arzate, 17, plays the role of Evelyn Nesbit, a real model and actress who is incorporated into the fictional story and accused of being shallow.

ARZATE: “It’s very eye-opening because you look at it and it’s just a simple musical, but if you take a step back and go to the real world, it’s the exact same thing that’s going on today.”

Hodaly Sotelo, 17, plays the role of Mother, a woman whose attitudes toward her identity as a wife and woman evolve throughout the story.

SOTELO: “It reminds me of when I was younger and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re over all that racism.’ But now, I look back and I think, what the heck? This stuff is still going on and we thought it was way over.”

Brianna Mauricio-Perez, 17, is one of two student directors.

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “It talks about all of the harsh truths that no one wants to talk about.”

DOUGLAS: “I think it’s safe to say it shows the true colors of our history.”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “Even within our cast we did have to have a talk about how we were so separated because we were at the very beginning. Everyone was in their little groups and with their friends. You just want to keep to yourself.”

DOUGLAS: “It was literally ‘Ragtime.’”

MAURICIO-PEREZ: “We had a big talk with everybody. Things have gotten so much better. By the end of Act Two, we were all mixed up.”

Brenda Castellanos, 17, plays the role of Emma Goldman, drawn from a real-life political activist and anarchist.

CASTELLANOS: “Now that we’re closer, now that we’re all comfortable, we put in more effort.”

After nearly every rehearsal, teachers and directors give students a talk, urging them to immerse themselves in the feelings of their characters, relating to them if necessary through their parents, grandparents or ancestors who were immigrants, or through current events.

“What if you saw someone beaten, and bloodied and killed in front of you?” one director asked.

They also remind students of why the play should be impactful. “You have to figure out how for two-and-a-half hours you can give hope to that audience,” Marie Hayden, Hinkley’s choir director told students last week.

CASTELLANOS: “I think it it helps us. Every day, we get more into it and more into it until we actually believe it. You actually feel it — like how Janelle feels when she’s singing and she starts crying and makes everybody cry. We all feel connected.”

Students say they have different scenes that impact them the most, but they don’t hesitate to find how the scenes relate to their life despite the story being set in the first decade of the 1900s. Hayden’s class and the practice for the musical are safe places where they can discuss those parallels, they said.

Shavaun Mar, 16, is a junior who plays the main character of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime piano player who is the target of racial attacks and struggles with revenge and forgiveness.

MAR: “I feel like that is crucial that we give people those opportunities to talk because a lot of people have very valid things to say but they just don’t have a way to get it out.”

CASTELLANOS: “The shootings.”

ARZATE: “The racism. They help us discuss it because there’s so many things that are going on. Pretty much everyday there’s a tragedy going on. And so, in a way, we can use that sentiment, that emotion that we feel with the real world and convey it when we’re doing this show. We use those feelings and we try to think about it in that way. To display that emotion. To display it to everyone else. And not directly represent what’s going on today but just to give them that ‘aha’ moment, like ‘wow.’”

Ebony Nash, 17, plays the character of Sarah, an innocent girl who wants to help her boyfriend settle his problems.

NASH: “It just makes us want justice in real life because these things are still going on even though it’s not out there. It just makes us want justice for our community. This musical showed me that I need to become better within myself because I’m not perfect.”

SOTELO: “It opened my eyes a lot more for sure. This kind of just makes me realize the problems I have. It makes me realize yea, I’m having immigration issues with my father right now, but that also my friends, you know, they’re going through the same thing too. This DACA stuff or this coming out stuff. I became more accepting of what other people might be going through and how I can help.”

MAR: “The past few years, I have been in a bit of a shell. So putting myself in this situation and pushing myself to be this other person has really shown me what I’m capable of and it’s helping me break out of that shell and realize who I am as a person.”

NASH: “Basically, this is our getaway from real life because we get to come on stage and be somebody else. It also makes us want to put the story out right so people can understand. So people can feel what we want them to feel.”

CASTELLANOS: “That there’s hope after all this corruption that’s going on.”

DOUGLAS: “That even in your bad times you can still laugh, cry, dance.”

NASH: “What I want people to get from this is change. To learn how to change and learn how to forgive and learn how to come together as a community and just, like their worth.”

SOTELO: “And to be strong. To stand up for what’s right.”

ARZATE: “And it might sound weird, but I feel like they should feel a certain level of uncomfort because that means that they’re going to look at themselves while seeing the musical. Maybe they’ll go ‘I’m uncomfortable because I do that’ or ‘I have that prejudice’ or ‘I feel that certain way,’ so if they come out and they feel uncomfortable and then at the end they’re like, ‘Wow. There’s that hope for change.’ Hopefully that like…”

DOUGLAS: “… It inspires them to do better.”

ARZATE: “Like, you can do it.”

SOTELO: “It’s kind of like a water droplet. One small move can domino-effect to something bigger.”


Taking attendance

Want to make middle school admissions more fair? Stop looking at this measure, parents say

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Middle school students write their names down at a high school fair in Brooklyn.

Parents across New York City have pushed for changes in the way selective middle schools pick their students, saying the process is unfair.

Now, a group of Manhattan parents has come up with a novel solution: Stop looking at students’ attendance records.

The parent council in District 2 — where about 70 percent of middle schools admit students based on their academic records — points to research showing that students from low-income families are far more likely to miss school. Those children are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition for the district’s top middle school seats, the council argues, even though factors beyond the control of any fourth-grader — especially family homelessness — often account for poor attendance and tardiness.

“This outsized focus on attendance disproportionately impacts students who don’t have secure housing and may not have secure healthcare, and that is troubling to me,” said Eric Goldberg, a member of the community education council in District 2, which includes stretches of Lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side. “There are many factors that should not impact a student’s educational opportunities — and the way the system is set up, it does.”

Eighteen of the district’s 24 middle schools are “screened,” meaning they rank applicants based on factors including test scores, grades, and interviews. Of those, all but one school also considers how often students were late or absent in fourth grade, according to the parent council.

Most of the schools assign points to each factor they consider. Some give absences 10 times more weight than science or social studies grades, the council found, while others penalize students for even a single absence or instance of tardiness.

Disadvantaged students are especially likely to miss school.

A recent report by the city’s Independent Budget Office found that homeless students are more likely than other students to be chronically absent — typically defined as missing about 10 percent of the school year.

Schools with the highest chronic absenteeism are in communities in “deep poverty,” which have the highest rates of unemployment and family involvement with the child-welfare system, according to a 2014 report by the New School at the Center for New York City Affairs.

“We can use chronic absenteeism as a good guess of all the other things kids are dealing with,” said Nicole Mader, a senior research fellow at the New School and a co-author of the report. “If these middle schools are using absenteeism to weed kids out, that means they’re going to automatically weed out those kids who have the most barriers to academic success already.”

The attendance requirement can put pressure on any family, regardless of their financial status or housing situation.

Banghee Chi, a parent of two children in District 2, said she sometimes sent her younger daughter to school with a fever when she was in fourth grade rather than have her marked absent.

Her daughter would show up to class only to be sent to the school’s health clinic — which would call Chi to pick her up. Chi was thinking ahead to middle school, when a missed day of class could hurt her chances of getting into the most sought-after schools.

“It was something I was really conscious and aware of during my child’s fourth-grade year,” she said. “I think it’s unfair.”

The education council’s resolution, which will be put to vote in December, is nonbinding because middle schools set their own admissions criteria. But a show of support from parents could lead to action from the education department, which has been prodded by integration advocates to make other changes in high school and middle school admissions.

This summer, the department announced it would end the practice of “revealed rankings,” which allowed middle schools to select only those students who listed them first or second on their applications. The city is also appointing a committee of parents, educators, and community leaders in Brooklyn’s District 15 to come up with a proposal for making that district’s middle school applications process more fair.

“We’re collaborating with communities across the city to make school admissions more equitable and inclusive, including in District 2,” said department spokesman Will Mantell in an email. The department looks forward “to further conversations about this resolution and other efforts to improve middle school admissions in District 2.”