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JCPS Is Addressing Student Homelessness Despite Dwindling Funds

school classroom
Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons
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Thomas Galvez/Creative Commons

Kentucky has the nation's highest rate of student homelessness, according to a new report from the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Nearly 5 percent of the state's roughly 685,000 students were considered homeless in the 2012-13 school year, the report shows. That's about 30,000 students who lack a permanent home.

In Louisville, more than 12,000 students were reported to be homeless during that same year, according to Jefferson County Public School district data. But last year, that number fell dramatically -- to about 6,800 students reported as homeless, the district's data shows.

Homeless students are prone to struggle in the classroom, said Giselle Danger, JCPS's director of homeless education programs. They often have higher dropout rates and lower test scores.

In fact, in 2013-14, homeless students had a 62 percent graduation rate, compared with a 79 percent district-wide graduation rate, according to JCPS data.

And regarding test scores, the district's data show that about 10 percent fewer homeless students score proficient or distinguished than their peers on reading portions of state testing. On math portions, about 12 percent fewer homeless students score proficient or distinguished compared with peers, the data show.

John Marshall, the district's chief equity officer, said these students' lack of access to opportunities such as summer camps and the absence of consistency in their lives often lead to academic struggles.

"Just the familiarity and the relationship between teacher and student is hard to build when you're constantly going from place to place," Marshall said.

Jefferson County Public Schools uses the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness among students. It identifies homeless students as those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

This means not every student considered homeless in Louisville is sleeping on the street or in shelters, Danger said. In fact, nearly 70 percent of the school district's homeless students are living with family, friends or relatives, she said. Despite that, they still lack the consistency and stability a student needs to succeed in the classroom.

The sharp drop in the number of homeless students from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year is due mainly to a more diligent manner in which students are counted, Danger said.

In past years, the district over-identified students as homeless, she said. Now, district officials are are more objective when determining residency. Families are asked more in-depth questions about where they live. And, in addition, JCPS students living in the foster care system are no longer considered homeless.

She said it's important that every student receiving the boosted resources offered to homeless students is, in fact, eligible for those resources.

"Resources are limited," she said.

Currently, Danger is the only person working in the district's homeless student education program, though she said there are plans to expand. Funding from the federal McKinney-Vento grant — which provides school districts across the nation with money to support homeless students — decreased from around $230,000 last year to $90,000 this year, Danger said.

That $90,000 makes up the entire budget of her department, which is tasked with providing support and services to more than 6,800 of the district's most vulnerable students.

She couldn't say why the drop in federal funding occurred, but she admitted the tight budget forces her to get creative in the ways she reaches out to students.

A partnership with the University of Louisville's Kent School of Social Work allows bachelor's and master's degree students to work under her direction at no cost to help provide case management to Jefferson County students.

Socioeconomic barriers are often the toughest for homeless students to breach, Danger said.

"I know that social work and social support case management is so important," she said.

In addition to case management, her office also works to provide each student with an academic assessment and offers extended learning opportunities at community centers across the city.

Still, it's tough to reach every student. The district pays just eight certified teachers to provide tutoring at emergency shelters across the city, Danger said. School officials also have outreach efforts specifically targeted to parents, Danger said.

"We know that the whole family is suffering homelessness, and the whole family is needed to make sure that the kid has the same academic opportunity," she said.

Students considered to be homeless are given the option of staying in the school they began the year or transferring to a school closer to where they live, despite how many times they may move, she said. That's a key aspect of the support provided by the district, she said, as some students may move four or five times in a single school year, which can disrupt learning.

Enrollment totals for homeless students in Louisville won't be finalized until the end of September, Danger said. She expects the figure to remain at about 6,800.

Natalie Harris, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said the numbers certainly aren't dropping, at least from what she sees with homeless families and young people at shelters.

Currently, a federal push to end homelessness among veterans is reaping the bulk of many resources for homeless services, Harris said. The aim of that initiative is to end homelessness among veterans and other chronically homeless people within two years. Then, a federal long-term plan to end homelessness will shift focus to get all families and younger residents in permanent housing by 2020.

She said the best way to reach that goal is to push the federal government to dedicate the same resources toward homeless families as have been allocated for homeless veterans.

"We know that what we are getting now isn't enough if we are going to meet that goal," she said.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.