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.”

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.”