This is the first of four articles about homeless students in Jefferson County. Subsequent stories in the series “No place to go” will focus on Whitewater, Fort Atkinson and its Crossroads program.
JEFFERSON — In recent years, the School District of Jefferson has recorded serving anywhere from 50 to close to 100 homeless students.
Lack of adequate or permanent housing has a negative impact on students’ ability to learn, but there are numerous ways the district can support these students and help them gain some stability in their lives.
In many cases, school is the most stable part of these students’ lives, offering a haven of normalcy in a chaotic and unpredictable world, said Kathy Volk, director of pupil services for the Jefferson district.
“It’s a much greater problem than people think,” Volk said. “Lots of kids and families are affected throughout Jefferson County — they’re just not very visible.”
Volk said there is a definite need for homeless services in the Jefferson schools, as due to their housing situation, these students are at greater risk for absences, poor grades and other problems.
The Jefferson district recorded 84 homeless students in 2014-15 and 95 in 2015-16. The numbers have gone down since then, hovering in the 50s and 60s, but that still is a significant number of students who lack basic supports at home and require additional assistance from the schools just to bring them close to an equal footing with their peers.
There is a law that guides how school districts handle people experiencing homelessness. This McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act lays out regulations schools are required to follow.
“Homeless,” as defined in the law, doesn’t just refer to people who are “living on the streets.” It also includes people who might be sleeping in their cars, staying doubled- or tripled-up with relatives without an address of their own, or staying with friends on a temporary basis.
That is, they lack a fixed, regular nighttime residence.
Students who fall into this category are entitled by federal law to assistance.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act dictates that every school district must have a homeless liaison. In the Jefferson schools, Volk serves in this capacity.
The McKinney-Vento Act also lays out how to identify students who might qualify for these services, then stipulates procedures that should be followed to help these students.
Volk noted that statewide, 2 percent of all students fit into this legal definition of homelessness. That number has quadrupled over the last 10 years, and Volk said she still believes the phenomenon is under-reported.
To make sure those who need help receive it, staff members are trained to look for signs that students lack inadequate housing, as this information is unlikely to be shared.
“Some of the things students don’t tell us can be the most important,” Volk said.
For instance, if a student comes to school wearing the same clothes day after day, this could be a sign of homelessness, as could sleeping in class or getting off the bus at different stops.
A student might seem hungry or unkempt, or exhibit a change in behavior. He or she might be purposely vague when talking about his or her home situation.
If a student is found to be homeless, there are a lot of steps the district can take to alleviate the situation and maximize that student’s learning, Volk said.
Many times, a homeless student winds up living in a different district than the one he or she originated in due to a series of moves. In that case, it’s the family’s choice — or in the case of an unaccompanied youth, his or her choice — as to where they want their child to attend school.
For a very young child, the family might prefer to move that child to a neighborhood school in the new area that they could walk to. For an older child with established friends and ties in the district of origin, they might want to have that student attend school where he or she was going before, even though the child now lives elsewhere.
In that case, the two affected districts are asked to share the cost of transportation.
There are no homeless shelters in Jefferson County, although sometimes families from within the county get housed in shelters elsewhere.
Much more often, they wind up with relatives, friends or acquaintances, sometimes moving around due to changing conditions.
The district can provide referrals to community and educational services, Volk said.
The school district has a responsibility to look out for the child’s health if he or she is homeless and almost by definition unable to afford proper care.
The Jefferson schools coordinate with many area agencies, such as the Rock River Free Clinic, which can provide free dental services right in the schools.
The school also can work with local agencies to try to prevent a family’s eviction from their home.
If people are living in a car or other substandard conditions, the district can provide hotel vouchers, and assist a family in getting into a shelter, if necessary.
“Sometimes members of the same large family are being sent out to different locations around the area,” Volk noted.
If there’s a concern about food insecurity, the schools can send the child home with food in a backpack to help feed him or her while not in school.
Obviously, homeless students qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at school.
On the state level, the population of homeless students has grown alarmingly in the last 15 years, although locally, the numbers have gone up and down.
The number of homeless students as reported by the state Department of Public Education rose from 5,354 in 2003-04 to 18,854 in 2017-18, appearing to reach a plateau in the last five years.
Statewide nighttime residence data shows that a very small number of these homeless youths are housed in shelters. More have temporary lodgings in a hotel, provided via voucher, but the largest percentage are doubled up with other families, with cramped and substandard housing for all.
In the local area, there are families who sleep in campgrounds during the summer, but run into trouble when the weather turns cold and the campgrounds close, Volk said.
The issue of homelessness can be a touchy one, as family members might feel guilt about the circumstances that landed them in the situation, such as job loss, addiction, abuse, mental illness or pervasive poverty.
Even with two parents working, it’s still possible that a family is unable to make enough money to sustain the household.
When first contacting families suspected of qualifying for homeless assistance, school social workers do the first “gentle reach-out,” Volk said.
“The families we work with are in transition — they’ve lost stability. It’s our job to help them regain that stability,” Volk said.
If a parent needs a job, the school district can connect them to the Workforce Development Center to assist in the job search.
Jefferson County Human Services also can assist families in crisis.
The district partners with Jefferson County Christmas Neighbors to provide holiday meals and gifts for families in need, and works with Ready Kids for School to connect students to the school supplies they need to start the year off right.
Through donations and community support, the district is able to keep school supplies coming for needy students throughout the school year, whether they’re new to the district or have just run through the supplies they picked up at the start of the school year.
Along with partnering with area agencies and organizations to assist homeless students, there is a lot the school district can do itself, such as dipping into special funds set aside for band shoes or an instrument, or fees and equipment for sports.
Now that Jefferson High School and Jefferson Middle School have moved to one-on-one computing, with a designated Chromebook for each student, that helps students get work done during the school day.
High-schoolers are allowed to take their Chromebooks home to finish up assignments. However, not all families have internet access, or consistent access. The school district already opens the upper-level buildings before and after school so students can use the internet connection there, but in a case of extreme hardship, it could provide an internet hotspot for a given student so they could complete his or her work at home.
Homeless youths often need simple toiletries or supplies that their peers take for granted.
Both Jefferson High School and Jefferson Middle School have established “Eagle Closets” full of these needed supplies — from clothes and shoes to backpacks and other school supplies, to personal hygiene products and more.
“A lot of this is supported by donations — we have great community support — but we do also go out and purchase things,” Volk said.
And when a family’s situation does improve, it is not immediately cut off from the higher level of supports. Rather, those supports continue for the balance of the school year, with the recognition that these gains can be fragile and the family remains under a lot of stress.
In some cases, an entire family is “unhoused,” while in other cases, a youngster (usually a teen) is classified as an “unaccompanied youth.”
In many cases, this person has fled an abusive home, while in others, they might have been “kicked out” of their home due to their sexuality, gender identity or another reason.
Statewide, there has been a real increase in students classified as “unaccompanied youth,” Volk said. In part, that could be due to better documentation and recordkeeping on the part of school districts and agencies charged with helping these students. However, it also is possible that more students are venturing out on their own, fleeing untenable home situations.
Expanding on the issue of unaccompanied youth, Volk said that she serves these students “in loco parentis.”
That means she’s the one signing their permission slips and application forms for programs they’re trying to enter, rather than a parent. The same goes for college or technical school applications.
Being classified as an unaccompanied youth actually can open doors for these students when it comes to financial support for higher education.
Volk said the district recently helped two unaccompanied youths who had gained employment and needed an apartment. Staff members pulled together and soon had collected everything the students would need to furnish the apartment, from beds to a kitchen table.
One more aspect to the Jefferson district’s approach to helping homeless families is universal training for teachers and other staff.
Three years ago, the entire staff participated in a poverty simulation hosted by the Fort Community Credit Union. Participants said it was very “eye-opening.”
The simulation involved setting up a virtual town, with staffers forming “families.” Each of those “families” was given a scenario with certain fixed expenses, a base-level income and emergency events that the families then had to absorb, like loss of a job or violence in the home that sends a parent fleeing with the children.
Reading teacher Kerry Niemuch said that the simulation deeply impacted her and was one of the best trainings she had ever attended.
“It was hard to de-stress after ‘living this’ for three hours,” the teacher said, noting that if the simulation was stressful, how much harder must it be on the youngsters who are living this life day after day?
“I understand better now how some kids can be perpetually late,” she said.
In addition, the district has hired an instructional coach, and has arranged “book studies” around poverty to help teachers best serve those in need.
A couple of years ago, the district adopted a trauma-sensitive approach, applying current research to motivate better student behaviors through compassion and understanding, rather than further stressing children in trauma so they become more defensive and more likely to act out.
“We want to guide people in a supportive way,” Volk said.
Administratively, Volk meets with the social workers regularly.
Annually, the district reviews all of its related policies and procedures to make sure the approaches it is using take into account any legal changes or new requirements, to make sure the district’s screening tools are effective and to make sure the district is reaching families with the information and resources they need.
In the near future, the district will be arranging a staff viewing of the movie “16:49.” The documentary film, which won honors in the Beloit International Film Fest, looks into the lives of homeless teens in Rock County.
The title refers to the time homeless youngsters spend outside of school, which for many youths can be chaotic and dangerous.
Overall, Volk said, the Jefferson school district has taken numerous steps to identify homeless students and to work with them to reduce barriers to achievement. However, there probably still are some within the district who remain unidentified, and the district will continue to work hard to reach all of those who need help.