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.”

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

Student Voices

What would these students tell newly trained teachers? ‘Be woke’

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Freedom Prep student Destiny Dangerfield talks alongside Asiah Hayes, Detario Yancey, and Evan Walsh at a panel discussion for TFA Memphis trainees.

Respect for others, being resourceful, and confronting biases are among the lessons four high-school-age students wanted to convey during a panel discussion for future Teach for America participants.

Teach for America Memphis trains recent college graduates and places them in local classrooms for two years, with the goal of developing leaders who will commit to educational equity. Earlier this month, TFA Memphis kicked off its Summer Institute, welcoming 153 new trainees. Created in 2006, the group now has over 400 alumni working in local schools. 

High-schoolers Asiah Irby, Evan Walsh, Destiny Dangerfield, and Detario Yancey shared their personal stories with about 200 corps members, directors, and alumni last week. When these students enrolled in Freedom Preparatory Academy and KIPP Memphis Collegiate Schools, it marked a turning point for them. Both schools are charters that hire many program grads.

“We wanted kids that embody so much of what we hope for for all of our students,” said Athena Palmer, executive director of TFA Memphis. “What were the key moments along the way” in their educations?

Based on interviews and the panel discussion, here’s what the students thought first-time teachers should know:

Tell us you won’t tolerate bullying. And mean it.

Destiny Dangerfield wants to be a federal prosecutor, or a civil rights attorney, or perhaps a performer one day. These are lofty goals for any student, but they once seemed unreachable for Dangerfield. Her father, a musician, packed his bags before she started middle school.

“That took a really huge toll on me because that was when I was starting to be introduced to a whole lot more boys,” she said. “Having him walk out on me did a number on my self-worth and self-image and I saw myself as little to nothing.”

School for Dangerfield was supposed to be a safe haven. But that wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, she said, an act as simple as momentarily stepping out of the classroom could affect a student’s safety.

“In reality, that two minutes could be the difference between a child getting in a fight or being talked about or ganged up on,” she said. “Be articulate that you won’t tolerate bullying of any kind. And show them that that’s not an empty threat and that you mean business.”

A safe community of friends and classmates helped Dangerfield get through school. Now, she wants her circle to learn to use their voices to make change, even though she feels people like her are misunderstood and often neglected.

“I want to see more investments within our city.…” she said. “I feel like Memphis has so much to offer … no one has the chance to see our potential.”

The classroom is where teachers can start to grow that potential. But one of her teachers didn’t, and that sticks with her today.

“I don’t want to be talked to like I’m 2 years old when I’m 17,” she said. “I will respect you no matter what, but I want to feel respected in the process.”

Open up. Everyone is nervous on the first day, including us.

In ninth grade, Evan Walsh listened while a faculty member told his parents, “He’s not up to the academic rigor of this school.” The meeting lasted five minutes, and he left unenrolled.

“When a student is in an environment where they feel like the people around them couldn’t care less about their education or what they do in life or what happens to them, you get the unfortunate situation that a lot of students are in right now,” he said, referring to two of his former classmates who lost their lives to violence in the city.

For Walsh, who spent his life moving from place to place, first times were frequent. Creating a bond with students in awkward moments can create lasting relationships, he said.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Corps members talk to and hug participants Evan Walsh and Detario Yancey after the discussion.

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “We’re all human. We can all be scared. Understand like, we’re just as nervous as you are, especially on the first day.”

With the help of a former assistant principal who had a son in the school, Walsh found his way to KIPP, where his GPA shot from a 2.5 to a 3.6. In May, Walsh graduated summa cum laude, and he was the first from his school to apply for early decision and be accepted into the college of his dreams: Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Still, he thinks of his two classmates and their dreams deferred.

“I’m a strong believer in thinking that violence and poverty is a cycle, and the way to break through some of it is with education,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have family and people around me that recognized the value of education.”

Expect only the most out of us – we’re smarter than you think.

In the rocky years that followed first grade, Asiah Irby found herself caught in a custody battle. Because her mother took care of her, she now wants to return the favor.

“‘That kind of shaped me into the person I am today,” she said. “Even when I’m at my lowest, I still push myself to do my best and be better. I just want what’s best for me and my family.”

When Irby thinks of excellence, she thinks of a poster that was on her English teacher’s wall: “I won’t insult your intelligence by giving you easy work.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Incoming corps members clap for students during panel discussion.

“Coming into a classroom seeing stuff like that just made me know that he cared and that being in his class, I was safe to just learn and try and fail and succeed,” she said.

But she hasn’t always been so lucky. Irby’s worst experience was when she switched teachers in the middle of the year, leaving her with an F grade in the class. Her new teacher didn’t have high expectations for her.

“He was white and kind of privileged, and he would make comments in class that were kind of racist and sexist,” she said. “I want to be something in life, and I don’t want anybody to tell me that I can’t be anything.”

Irby is now a rising senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, where she raised her ACT score from a 23 to a 27 in one year, enough to get into highly ranked schools such as Syracuse and the University of Texas. And Irby won’t settle for anything less. Success for Irby means leaving a path that students like her younger sister can follow.

“I want to do what I can to make sure that she does better than I do,” Irby said. “My dream for Memphis is for kids that look like me to get experiences that kids who don’t look like me get.”

Teaching is about developing your ‘mommy instinct.’

At home, Detario Yancey’s parents gave him a stable life. But at his failing elementary school, resources were scant, and Yancey’s grades suffered.

“I felt like I was behind,” he said. “I felt like I had a lot of potential locked up in a door, but somebody had to unlock it.”

Yancey enrolled at KIPP in the fifth grade, eating his lunch during tutoring as he worked to recover his grades. Being a teacher in a school this rigorous requires a kind of finesse and quick wit – almost like a “mommy instinct,” he said.

“You want to make your children feel as safe as possible,” he said. “They may not have that love at home. They may not be feeling that love from their peers. Find a creative way to make them feel loved and safe.”

Now, the recent graduate prides himself on representing his class as president and valedictorian.

“I want to see underprivileged kids like me surpass expectations,” he said. “The system is in place for us to fail. I want to see us live to beat those systems down.”

In the weeks ahead, TFA’s incoming corps members will teach summer school at Memphis Business Academy before receiving their assignments for the new school year.

Yancey left them with one last bit of advice: “Be creative, be intuitive, be socially intelligent – and be woke.”