hidden problem

Young and homeless: a tough road for a growing number of Colorado students

Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison at Denver's East High School, leads a support group for students identified as homeless.

Kamia Bradley has so much going for her.

The poised 17-year-old will graduate from Denver’s East High School next month and set off on a trip to Ghana with the school’s choir in June. Next fall, she plans to go to college in Denver or Arizona. She started flying lessons last summer and dreams of being a pilot.

Kamia’s accomplishments and aspirations are all the more impressive given that she lives with challenges most of her classmates cannot fathom. She is homeless.

It’s not living-on-the-streets homelessness—the circumstances most people associate with the term. Bradley moved in with her cousin’s family in northeast Denver’s Montbello neighborhood last year after a stint in a motel with her mom. They’d lost their Glendale apartment.

Under federal law, Kamia falls into a category called “doubled up,” meaning she’s temporarily living with friends or relatives because of housing loss or financial hardship. It’s this subset of homeless students that has grown at alarming rates in some districts in recent years, especially Denver, Adams 12, Pueblo 60 and Mesa County 51.

All four districts saw their homeless student numbers increase by more than 30 percent last year, according to district data analyzed by Chalkbeat.

Such spikes are worrisome because homeless students are at high risk of mid-year school switches, chronic absenteeism and other problems that can hurt them academically.

Observers say the disconcerting trend lines in some districts are a sign that affordable housing is a major problem. In gentrifying Denver, more and more families are getting pushed out of the city by rising rents, while Grand Junction and other communities haven’t enjoyed a strong post-recession rebound.

The rising number of homeless students in those communities was spotlighted in the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released last month by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

Statewide, the number of homeless students in Colorado rose from about 24,000 in 2013-14 to 24,700 in 2014-15. Balancing out the big increases in some communities were decreases in districts such as Boulder Valley, St. Vrain and Weld 6, where many students rendered homeless by the 2013 floods have found permanent housing.

Nationwide, there were nearly 1.3 million homeless students in 2013-14, a 7 percent increase from the year before. In both years, “doubled up” students made up three-quarters of the tally.

Path to homelessness

Kamia’s path to homelessness touches on territory familiar to anybody who works with such students—a parent’s mental illness, a lost lease and a lots of dead end house-hunting.

With her mother suffering from depression and delusions that she was being poisoned, the teenager spent two months last year trying to find an apartment that would take their Section 8 housing voucher.

Kamia Bradley, a senior at East High School in Denver
Kamia Bradley, a senior at East High School in Denver

“I called so many different places,” she said.

But rents were too expensive or landlords wouldn’t accept the vouchers. So Kamia moved in with her 28-year-old cousin. She leaves the house at 5:40 a.m. for the hour-and-a-half bus ride to school. Her mother ended up in a shelter, sporadically reachable on a prepaid cell phone.

School districts are required to identify and help homeless students under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. But figuring out who’s homeless can be tricky. Many families don’t know they qualify for help if there’s a roof over their head—even if that roof is temporary and doesn’t belong to them.

“The problem with youth homelessness is it’s usually pretty hidden,” said Cathy Ebel, prevention services coordinator for Mesa County 51.

District employees called homeless liaisons often work doggedly to identify homeless students who are doubled up or living in shelters, hotels, campgrounds or vehicles. Part of the job involves educating school secretaries, registrars and other school staff to recognize and respond accordingly to the signs of homelessness among new students.

Homeless students are entitled to immediate enrollment and free school meals even if they lack the required paperwork. They also have a right to free transportation back to the school they attended when they became homeless. Many districts also help by providing backpacks, school supplies, groceries, clothing and other resources to students and their families.

What’s driving the increases?

Although the poverty rate has decreased statewide, housing struggles are ubiquitous in many communities with rising homeless counts.

“Grand Junction’s economy hasn’t recovered as quickly as other Colorado cities,” said Ebel.

Also, as the only sizable city between Denver and Salt Lake City, Grand Junction tends to attract struggling families because of the many services available, she said.

In Denver, district officials say an influx of new residents, the lack of affordable housing and some families’ loss of Section 8 housing vouchers have contributed to the housing crisis among lower-income families.

Anna Theisen, program manager for the district’s Homeless Education Network, said the district has seen big increases in its doubled-up numbers and the duration of homelessness over the last year.

In Pueblo, many families come in search of cheaper housing and sometimes with the expectation of landing a job in the city’s marijuana industry, said Christy Graham, grant management specialist for District 60.

Another factor contributing to rising homeless student counts is better identification.

Ebel realized a couple years ago that her district’s homeless student count was lower than it should be—only about 390 students. A common rule of thumb, she said, is that the tally should equal about 10 percent of the number of district students who qualify for free school meals. By that measure, the number would have been about 740 in 2013-14.

Ebel subsequently stepped up identification efforts and the numbers jumped to 653 last year—a 68 percent increase. This spring, the district began working with a local shelter to place outreach workers at the district’s four large high schools to better identify and serve homeless teens.

Denver Public Schools has also bulked up staff dedicated to helping homeless students—last fall adding two new homeless liaisons to its staff of six.

One of them is Shant’a Johnson, who is bilingual in Spanish and helps with homeless student services at 46 district schools.

She was on her way to drop off bus passes and gas vouchers at a West Colfax elementary school on a recent afternoon when she spotted a small beat-up RV parked on a side street. There was a heap of scrap metal on top.

It belonged to one of her clients, she said—a grandfather with custody of his two grandchildren, one with special needs. The man, a former homeowner in Denver, had suffered a health crisis after taking on the kids, subsequently losing both his construction job and his house.

“There are some days it’s just like, ‘Wow, it’s so eye-opening,’” Johnson said.

Homeless students here?

Dorothy Leyba, a homeless liaison who works three days a week at East High School, said because of its reputation as a high-achieving and sought-after school many people are shocked to discover East has any homeless students at all. There are 56 out of 2,500 this year.

Homeless families in Denver can stay in this hotel run by the Volunteers of America for up to 12 days.
Homeless families in Denver can stay in this hotel run by the Volunteers of America for up to 12 days.

A half-dozen of them sat around a long wooden conference table at the school during a recent monthly support group meeting Leyba leads. It was fourth period. They munched on Doritos and granola bars as Leyba announced who would receive $5 gift cards for keeping their monthly attendance at 90 percent or better.

One boy had missed two school days in February, but still met the threshold.

“The only reason why is because I lost my bus pass and it was hard,” he explained.

In the next few minutes as Leyba asked what extracurricular activities they wanted to pursue, it was easy to forget the students were anything other than typical teenagers from stable homes.

One boy, who soon rushed off for an ACT practice test, said he wanted to take jujitsu. The boy who’d lost his bus pass asked about taekwondo and a girl across the table said she wanted to find a program that would teach her more about Japanese culture.

Leyba revels in her students’ resilience, but she also knows the daily frustrations they face.

Last fall, for example, Kamia was barred from attending the first day of classes because school officials initially said she needed a parent or caregiver to officially enroll her. Such logistical snafus happen a lot, but even harder is feeling alone in the world.

“When I’m sick I don’t have anyone to take care of me,” she said. “I can’t say my mom has died but that’s how it feels.”

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 holds a hearing on the bill Thursday.

“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.

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.”