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How can a school district help thousands of students experiencing homelessness?

In the 2019-20 school year, 10% of all Rockford Public Schools students were considered homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That’s 2,800 students. For comparison, there were more Rockford students considered homeless than total students in the Dixon School District.

Through the pandemic, the numbers in Rockford have gone down substantially. But homeless student liaisons and McKinney-Vento coordinators who work with the district say it’s not because there are far fewer unhoused students now.

“Oh gosh, no,” said Meghan Hawkinson. She is the director of at-risk student services at the state’s regional office of education covering Boone and Winnebago counties. “No, if anything I would say that even the 2019 numbers are lower than what they should be.”

Students prove more difficult to track during pandemic

She says numbers declined because it’s beenmuch harder to identify studentsduring the pandemic. Some families aren’t aware of the services or have disappeared from school entirely.

Part of her job is making sure school districts, like Rockford, properly spend the grant money to support students without stable housing through McKinney-Vento -- which guarantees the right to education for unhoused students.

That federal money first flows through Deb Foust’s office. She’s the McKinney-Vento Area 2 Lead Liaison. Her region covers 16 counties in northern Illinois. The reason she thinks there aren’t fewer housing-insecure students is because poverty rates haven’t improved, and availability of affordable housing hasn’t improved. COVID-era eviction moratoriumshave ended too.

“I truly believe that in these next few years, our numbers will continue to be back where they had been,” she said.

Support beyond school supplies

Foust says McKinney-Vento money has to be spent on “educational success.” They can’t pay families’ rent, but it’s still much more broad than just buying backpacks and pens. They support families with gas cards, clothing vouchers, sometimes weekly hotel stays.

Sometimes they can help make a student feel “normal.” Foust just reimbursed a school for a trip to Six Flags for kids who earned it through a reading program. They’ve paid for prom, sports fees and YMCA memberships.

She says those social and emotional connections make a difference -- since so many factors like housing stability and a safe place to sleep lead to educational success.

Every situation is unique

Not every student who meets the McKinney-Vento criteria is living on the street. Many are couch-hopping, staying with friends or other relatives.

It’s something Dr. Antoine Reed has seen first-hand. He’s the Chief Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion officer at Rockford Public Schools. Shortly after he was hired last year, he took a few weeks and rode the bus to school with students. He was wondering why the district's chronic absence and student mobility rateswere so high -- especially on Rockford’s west side.

“You would be on the bus one day and then maybe a week later, when I would go back to the route, the scholar had moved out or one sibling is still there and another one is in a motel somewhere else,” he said.

The thing that stuck out to him over and over is that kids want to be in school, and work incredibly hard just to walk through the front doorsevery day.

“I heard a young lady say, ‘Well, I just stayed at my auntie's house, and I had to figure out how to get an Uber and all these things,'” said Reed. “And this scholar was in third grade, just to get home in time to get on that school bus the next morning.”

Number of Boone & Winnebago county students meeting McKinney-Vento "homeless" criteria
Number of Boone & Winnebago county students meeting McKinney-Vento "homeless" criteria

Schata Henderson is a social service coordinator for Rockford Public Schools’ FIT or “Families in Transition” program.

Henderson has around 270 students in transition on her caseload, across nine different schools. She meets with students and families every day, either at their house, school or wherever they’re comfortable.

“A mom asked me, ‘Can you give me some socks?’ And as basic as that sounds, I'm like, ‘wow’ and I went and I found some socks,” she said.

Breaking stigma

Henderson also meets with the students. She likes to have an assortment of mini-chocolate bars to break the ice. She doesn’t like to specifically mention housing with the students, she leaves that for the caregivers. But she looks at their attendance and asks how their year is going and what could make it better. A student recently asked if she could help them get a tutor, another if she could help them get a summer job.

She thinks a lot about students like one girl who is a junior at Jefferson High School.

“There was a time that she was just going one day a week. And she doesn't live with her family. She lives with a family that took her in. They love her,” said Henderson.

The two met. The student opened up to Henderson. The coordinator talked her through how she could still graduate without having to go to an alternative school if she goes to summer school. Henderson just checked, and the student’s attendance is getting better -- and she seemed more excited to be there.

Henderson always stresses with students and families, they’re in the FIT program all year, whether things improve or not.

“The thing about change is it's not overnight. Even though you may find that job, it may not be the job for you,” she said. “They're trying to do everything right, but it still doesn’t always go their way. That does not mean that they're lazy, it does not mean that they don't care about their kids.”

Advocates say every situation is different with families in transition. They may have found housing, but it might not be warm or safe. They could be victims of domestic violence. It’s why people like Deb Foust say it’s important to train school staff in McKinney-Vento, so they’re able to identify warning signs -- to make sure students access the services and education they deserve.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.