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.”

How I Help

Students were obsessed with social media. Here’s what this middle school counselor did about it.

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Students at Eagle Valley Middle School in western Colorado were spending lots of time on social media, and too often their comments turned mean. Counselor Kayleen Schweitzer decided things needed to change, so last year she spearheaded a schoolwide campaign urging students, staff and parents to take a five-day break from social media. More than 150 people signed the pledge.

The results were encouraging. Participating students reported that they had more free time and were getting to bed earlier. Some even said the break made them realize they had been addicted to social media.

Schweitzer, who was named 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about how campaign organizers got students to participate, what she wants parents to know about middle-schoolers, and why she wants students to regard visiting a counselor as normal.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

When I was 15, I lost my father. It was very unexpected and I found out at school. When I returned to school no one checked on me or followed up to see if I was doing OK. I remember wishing I had more support at school. That was the first time I realized that one day I wanted to be someone who could be there for students going through a hard time or transition.

When I was in college my favorite classes had to do with child development. I went on to pursue a degree in family and human services and a graduate degree in school counseling. I’m definitely happy with my decision to be a school counselor and I look forward to going to work every day.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

In the 2016-17 school year, my principal Katie Jarnot and I identified a need for something that would help with some of the conflicts occurring at our school. Katie came across a national program called No Place For Hate. It was just what we were looking for. In the 2017-18 school year, we brought No Place For Hate to our school. It has been amazing and powerful.

We noticed a lot of mean behavior on social media and that our students were spending so much time online. Also, with a surge of recent research into the detrimental effects of screen time, social media, and the correlation to depression and anxiety, it was clear there needed to be a change. So Eagle Valley Middle School’s No Place for Hate Coalition created a schoolwide activity that attempted to give students, staff, and parents a glimpse into positives that can come from limiting social media use and taking back control of our lives. We asked our school community to commit to giving up social media for five days.

During those five days, everyone who took the pledge was asked to do a daily reflection on the differences that they noticed. We offered a chance to win prizes as an incentive. To our surprise, we had 110 students (about one-third of our school), 18 staff, and 30 parents sign up.

Though not everyone completed the five days, we felt we brought some awareness to this problem. Students noticed how much more time they had when not using social media and they were able to get to bed earlier. Some actually admitted this activity helped them realize that they are addicted to social media. A few parents reported they were able to be more present with their family at night and have fewer distractions.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

The tool I couldn’t live without is Google forms. Students can fill out a form to let me know they need to see me. When they fill out the form it notifies me with an email and I can see who is requesting to see me. It also allows me to keep data on what issues my students need support with. This helps me plan what supports I need to put in place through classroom guidance lessons, small groups, and individual counseling.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that it’s a bad thing to go to the school counselor and that you need to have a huge problem. I have noticed that some middle school students are embarrassed to be seen going to the school counselor. I have worked really hard to make it normal to come to me and teach them that the strongest, most successful people need help sometimes.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would remind parents that students’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and when they say they don’t know why they did something, they are probably being honest. I would also let them know that even if a student says they want parents to give them space and leave them alone, it’s not really what they want or need.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I have a student who is now in eighth grade and has been coming to see me on a regular basis when she needs support. As a sixth-grader, she was so closed off and worried about being seen coming to talk to me. I have been very consistent with her and kept reminding her that I’m always here if she needs anything. I ended up running a group with her and a lot of her friends. She saw that her friends loved coming to see me and were willing to talk to work through some of their problems. I also spent time with her and showed her it was a safe place to talk. Over time she broke down her walls and was able to trust me. Today, she stops by when she is doing well and when she is struggling. She loves to come and eat lunch with me. She has grown so much and I’m going to miss her dearly when she goes to high school.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is going home and worrying about my students. You always wish you could do more or make students see things can get better and they are enough. Middle school is such a hard time for students as they struggle to find where they fit in and deal with personal changes.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my first years as a school counselor, I had a student who was consistently falling asleep in class and missing a ton of school. When I had a meeting with his family, I found out that his mother was a single mom and his grandma, who also lived in the house, was very sick. The student was staying home to help take care of his grandma and his siblings so his mom could work and make money for the family. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of rehab.

I realized that different cultures have unique values and priorities. It also taught me that you never know what someone is going through so we need to really take time to talk to kids to figure out what is happening in their personal lives before jumping to conclusions.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

The way I wind down after a stressful day is to come home and spend time with my children. They are still young and innocent. I try to really enjoy this precious time with them when they have fewer worries and just want to have fun. I also love spending time with friends and clearing my mind of the worries of my job. Last, I enjoy catching up with email and work-related tasks as every time I scratch out something on my to-do list I seem to get stress relief.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.