Education
9:31 am
Thu May 9, 2013

Learning Without A Home: How St. Louis Districts Are Responding

Michele Shumpert, Homeless Coordinator for the Riverview Gardens school district, stands in the hallway of Gibson Elementary.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

The number of homeless students in Missouri has doubled over the past five years. Officials say this trend is adversely impacting education.

In the first of this two-part series, we focus our attention on school districts and what they're doing to meet the needs of students who don't have as stable place to call home.

Welcome to Gibson Elementary, home of the Geckos.

Even though it’s early, the halls are buzzing with kids eager to start the school day.

Standing in a rush of youthful enthusiasm, it’s easy to forget about the bruising recession that has left so many families living on the margins.

The school is part of the Riverview Gardens School District in north St. Louis County, and like so many across the country, it’s hustling to keep up with a surge in the number of homeless students.

Removing a stigma

The district had just under 200 homeless students during the 2007-08 school year.   Last year, that number jumped to more than 800.    

Michele Shumpert is the district’s Homeless Coordinator, and in the face of more and more kids having no stable place to call home, she says her response hinged on reinforcing a simple, but what can be a very powerful change:  They would stop calling kids homeless and start referring to them as being “in transition.”

 “Families are doubled up with other family members and friends, it just doesn’t look the same as it used to look,” Shumpert says.  “So with that, and changing times, we needed to change the verbiage, as well.”

Here’s why this is so important.  

First, she says labeling a kid as homeless can make them feel like they don’t have a future.

 “So, if we pose that there is hope and that there is light at the end of the tunnel then they feel that they have something to look forward to,” Shumpert says.

Second, she says many families and students without a stable home end up hoping from couch to couch, staying with friends and relatives.

“A lot of families don’t see themselves as homeless,” Shumpert says.

That’s a big problem because it makes it hard for people like Shumpert to connect them with a whole range of services. And once established, maintaining a steady connection with a student and family is absolutely critical.

“For instance today, the social worker for this program, he said to me, “mom requested that hearing testing be done for her son, who has a hearing challenge,” says Deidre Thomas-Murray, Homeless Coordinator for St. Louis Public Schools. 

“She also requested academic testing.  But, then when we attempt to locate mom to sign for this type of service, there’s no follow through.   Because the families are highly mobile, it makes it almost impossible to provide the services that are needed.”

A financial strain

On top of meeting the educational needs of students, districts can be faced with an added financial strain.

Under federal law students who lose their home have the right to continue attending their original school, even if their family finds temporary shelter outside a district’s boundaries.

For St. Louis Public Schools, where around 3,500 kids don’t have a permanent home, getting them to school is expensive.

The district spends close to $2 million a year on special transportation for those students.

Further complicating the issue is that these kinds of added expenses often fall on districts that have been hit hard by the economic downturn.

Being 'forthright' with the community 

This takes us back to Gibson Elementary School in north St. Louis County.

The Riverview Gardens school district has been hammered by the recession, under the weight of foreclosures a preliminary estimate shows property values dropped 24-percent between 2010 and 2012. 

With more kids coming to her office for help,  Shumpert started hanging posters anywhere she could, grocery stores, Laundromats, you name it, advertising the services she could provide.

Then something surprising started to happen, from food to clothing, community members started fill in the gaps.   

 “As long as we’re forthright and open, and let the know what’s going on and what we’re faced with as a district, then the community has been very receptive,”  Shumpert says.

At every level, experts all say the same thing:  A big part of meeting this challenge is to talk about it, and face it, as a community.

Shumpert says steadily lifting the stigma attached to homelessness has helped her connect struggling families with resources that can help them get back on their feet.

Even though the problem is persistent, for the first time in at least five years the number of students without stable housing is on the decline in the Riverview Gardens School District.

Tomorrow we'll focus on the challenges faced by students without a permanent home.

Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd

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