To Fight Student Homelessness, This School District Helps the Whole Family

Posted by Nancy Rogan on

From PBS NewsHour
February 14, 2017

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: how a school district in Kansas is grappling with the problems of homeless students.

PBS special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week reports.

It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

MAN: Let’s go, let’s go! Keep the ball in bounds!

LISA STARK: It’s varsity basketball practice at Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kansas, and 6’6” senior Malik Cushon is the tallest guy on the team, determined on the court and off.

MALIK CUSHON, Student: I just had to set my mind to it, had to be focused, real focused to get back where I needed to be.

LISA STARK: Back from a place he never expected to find himself. A few months ago, Malik had nowhere to live.

MALIK CUSHON: Me and my mother had a little miscommunication, and one word led to another. I don’t want to get too deep into it, because I still love my mother. But it just wasn’t right at the moment, so she just kicked me out.

LISA STARK: Did you realize he was homeless?


PRENTES POTTS, Basketball Coach, Schlagle High School: I didn’t know. I didn’t know.

LISA STARK: How did you find out?


PRENTES POTTS: He told me. He told me, told me through a text message.

LISA STARK: But by the time Malik told coach Prentes Potts what was going on, he was sleeping on a friend’s floor and had missed nearly a month of school, a common problem for homeless students, who are more likely to fall behind and drop out.

MALIK CUSHON: If I’m jumping from place to place, I’m not as focused on my school work. I got to think about what I’m eating for the night. I got to think about how bills are going to get paid. I got to think about all this extra stuff.


PRENTES POTTS: It kind of — it blew me away. Excuse me. I’m getting choked up. It blew me away, for the simple fact is, he never communicated anything like that, and his spirits are always so high. You never could tell by looking at him that that is what he was going through.

MALIK CUSHON: My little sister and my big brother.

LISA STARK: Malik now lives in housing for homeless youth, and gets services from the school district. Under federal law, districts must identify homeless students, those on the streets, doubled up in motels and shelters, or, like Malik, on their own.

KERRY WRENICK, Homeless Liaison: Did you do the intake with Ms. Marie?

LISA STARK: Districts must also have a homeless liaison. Here, that’s Kerry Wrenick. Her job is to make sure homeless students have the support they need to stay in school.

KERRY WRENICK: We provide educational services to make sure that kids get enrolled in school, get transportation back and forth to school, and then just kind of ensuring that their everyday needs are met.

LISA STARK: Student homelessness is a widespread problem. Nearly one in four school districts in the U.S. gets federal grant money to help provide services for homeless students. And that money is stretched thin. It amounts to about an average of about $50 per student.

So, the district also counts on outside help.

KERRY WRENICK: Everything in here is donated.

LISA STARK: This room overflows with supplies for homeless students and families.

This is one of the poorest districts in Kansas. This year, the school district expects to help more than 1,000 homeless students, nearly 5 percent of the student population. Over time, the solution became clear. To help homeless students, they needed to help homeless families.

KERRY WRENICK: I had to come to the realization that I wasn’t doing enough, that although everything that I was doing was well-intended, I was putting a Band-Aid on things.

LISA STARK: In 2015, Wrenick put out a call for help; 27 groups responded, nonprofits, civic groups, state agencies.

DESIREE MONIZE, Avenue of Life: I think the level of collaboration is very unusual.

LISA STARK: Desiree Monize runs Avenue of Life, a nonprofit that helps low-income families and oversees this collaboration.

WOMAN: My oldest daughter, her school had referred me to here.

LISA STARK: Here’s how it works. Once a family is certified by the school district as homeless, they can get assistance through a program called Impact Wednesday. They meet with a case manager, take classes on employment, finance and housing. In return, there’s help finding a job and a home.

WOMAN: Pay for transportation, food and clothing.

LISA STARK: The program has taken off.

DESIREE MONIZE: We piloted last year when the school district opened in August. And the close of year one, we were able to house 58 families, permanently house, and saw a 19 percent reduction in homelessness within the district by the close of year one.

LISA STARK: And already this school year, 65 families settled in homes, including the family of second grader Daisy Swift, her fifth grade sister, Cece Tiebout, and their mom, Angela Jordan, a hairdresser.

ANGELA JORDAN, Mother: You guys have everything together?

LISA STARK: What if the school district program hadn’t been there to help you?

ANGELA JORDAN: We wouldn’t be here right now. I don’t where we would be. We’d probably be — probably be on the streets or living in our car.

LISA STARK: Avenue of Life found them this one-bedroom apartment, covered the deposit and one month’s rent. The girls attend their original elementary school, even though it’s not their neighborhood school.

Federal law requires districts to provide transportation to the school students started the year in, even if they move into permanent housing during the school year.

KERRY WRENICK: To keep one kid at one school for one year, we just have the best outcome for their learning and their potential to pass and go on to the next grade.

ANGELA JORDAN: They knew that that was their safe zone, you know, that they could go there and be relaxed and know that they were fine there.

LISA STARK: These transportation costs do add up. Two years ago, the district spent $450,000 to transport homeless students.

ANGELA JORDAN: I will see you guys after school.

LISA STARK: But they reduced that by more than 20 percent last year by finding homes for families.

WOMAN: Do you have cooking stuff that’s in your hotel?

MAN: No.

LISA STARK: Kansas City didn’t start out to rescue homeless families, but that’s just what happened when they focused on saving students.

What is your goal for these kids?

KERRY WRENICK: To see them graduate and end the cycle of homelessness. I mean, my greatest blessing would be for Malik to graduate and him never enter the system again.

LISA STARK: Malik is on track to become the first of his siblings to get a traditional high school diploma. Then his plans include junior college.

MALIK CUSHON: Just me graduating, walking the stage is going to be a proud moment for us.

LISA STARK: And a proud moment for the district, which found that fighting student homelessness takes a full-court press.

Click here to watch the PBS NewHour report.

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