Jennings school students who are homeless and need a ride to school are arriving the way many suburban kids do: by minivan.
The small north St. Louis Country district of about 2,500 students began using minivans this fall to transport about two dozen homeless students to school. In the past, Jennings ordered up a fleet of taxi cabs. By switching to vans it owns, the district cut its transportation budget in half, improved attendance and reduced the stigma of showing up to school in a cab, administrators said.
Superintendent Art McCoy said now those students will “not be seen as different because they're coming in in a yellow cab versus everybody else who's coming in by a parent. Now you look like everybody else because you're coming in in the same type of model — nice, new Dodge minivan — just like other parents are.”
“That’s the real benefit, that the kids are kind of inconspicuous,” he said.
The district owns only one school bus and doesn’t provide regular transportation routes for students. Many walk or are dropped off by parents.
McCoy approached Enterprise car rental’s foundation, which then gave the school district $300,000. With the funds, Jennings purchased seven used minivans and hired drivers. The district will spend less than $100,000 on transportation for homeless students this school year. Three years ago, Jennings was spending more than $200,000 getting about 30 kids to and from school daily in taxi cabs.
Federal education law requires schools to take several steps to ensure continuity and stability in education for students who have unstable housing. That includes providing transportation, be it through regular school buses, public transportation passes or taxi cabs, as Jennings had been doing.
“We don't want gaps in the education, but we are held hostage by the transportation companies because there are a lack of drivers,” said Veronica Macklin, Jennings' director of student services. “That spills over into the school district. We can't get the kids to school because of the challenges of the shortage of drivers.”
Jennings opened its first of two foster homes in 2015. The two Hope Houses each provide housing for a handful of students within a block or two of the junior and senior high schools.
Overall, there are more than 30,600 homeless children in Missouri, most commonly staying with friends or family. Getting to school while not having a stable home can be a major challenge for some children. Missing school or being chronically tardy adds more instability and negatively impacts educational outcomes.
There are about 215 children in Jennings covered by the federal Students in Transition law known as McKinney-Vento. The number of students riding the minivans every day has hovered around 25 students, including some who live in Jennings but attend a neighboring district.
Of the two dozen children who have consistently ridden a minivan to a Jennings school, their attendance is up about 2% through the first quarter of the school year, according to district records. With a fleet of vans at the ready, district officials say they are more nimble than when working with cab companies.
“Maybe it may take three days to set up (a taxi) versus we just jump in, we got a van, we get there immediately on day one of school, and those make the difference between one to two points of attendance,” McCoy said.
There have been hiccups in using the minivans, such as navigating the best routes through rush-hour traffic and coordinating after-school activities. Sometimes Macklin or a fellow staff member hops in a van to pick up a student or take one home.
“We do what we have to do with all hands on deck,” she said.
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