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.”

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.