Johnson County schools do far more than teach reading, writing, and arithmatic. Something they’ve been doing a lot more of in recent years is working to combat the effects of poverty and homelessness on students.
Perhaps poverty and homelessness were once non-issues in the suburbs, but today they are evident in each of the six school districts serving Johnson County. This year, about 1,000 Johnson County students are classified as homeless.
Since 1990, every American student had been covered by the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act, a federal law that pays for school districts to provide transportation and other fees for homeless children. President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law — it has since been expanded to include breakfast — so poor kids can get free or reduced-price meals.
But Johnson County school districts have gone far beyond those measures, instituting programs and partnerships that provide free medical and dental care, free personal-hygiene products, free coats, shoes, haircuts and more — all with the goal of helping economically struggling students to thrive.
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“Schools try to say, ‘We’re invested in kids being able to learn and form social relationships,’ ” says Valorie Carson, a staffer United Community Services of Johnson County, who convenes a monthly meeting of school officials whose job it is to deal with the issue.
“You can’t turn off what happened five minutes ago when you walk in the door of the school.,” Carson said. “If you have an agitated, hungry body, there is no way for your brain to learn.”
It’s true that most homeless families in Johnson County are not living under bridges. Mostly, they are “doubled up,” or living with friends or family members temporarily. Similarly, some high schoolers may be “couch surfing.”
Carson has compiled countywide statistics on homelessness among families with children in schools. In 2007-08, at the beginning of the Great Recession, there were 323 children classified as homeless. That rose to 746 in the 2009-10 school year.
For the last four years, the number has stabilized at around 1,100. The lion’s share of those students are found in the Shawnee Mission and Olathe districts, with smaller numbers in Blue Valley, De Soto, Gardner-Edgerton and Spring Hill.
The requirement for children to be vaccinated against contagious diseases revealed an economic problem, said Shelby Rebeck, Shawnee Mission School District’s health services coordinator. Some families complained they couldn’t afford it.
So the district arranged with the non-profit Health Partnership Clinic and the Johnson County Health Department to offer free immunization clinics at several grade schools during the summer. Similarly, for the past three years, Health Partnership dentists have worked with the Shawnee Mission district to provide free checkups and treatment to needy students during the school year.
This year, the Shawnee Mission district ramped up Project HOME – which stands for Housing Opportunities Move Everyone. The district convenes twice-monthly meetings at a local church, bringing together officials from various helping agencies with the aim of moving homeless families into permanent housing.
Robin Bell, Shawnee Mission’s director of family services, calls Project HOME “a true collaboration with community resources.” Meetings are at New City Church, in the Trailridge Shopping Center in Shawnee.
“We’ve identified families who qualify and the obstacles they face, and we’ve put community resources in place for housing, finance, utilities, food stamps – all in one place to make it more accessible for these families,” Bell said. “Johnson County Mental Health Center has therapy available. At the end of the day, we want families to be self-sufficient.”
In 2014, the Olathe School District won an award from the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children for its Back to School outreach program.
“We bring everyone we have identified to our office building on the first Saturday in August,” said Community Liaison Heather Schoonover. “Churches serve breakfast and lunch. We provide the kids with a winter coat, a haircut, a bag of groceries, health care from the Olathe Health System, the Johnson County Health Partnership and Johnson County Health Department. We offer dental care and fluoride treatment from Johnson County Health and individual providers. We give out library cards, shoes, the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund gives out gift cards. … Our foundation allows them to pick out a backpack, if they want.”…
“We have amazing partnerships with businesses and faith groups and civic clubs, and they donate gift cards so the kids can get a brand-new outfit for the first day of school and school pictures.,” Schoonover said. “We want them to feel as good as anyone else going into school on the first day.”
As for housing itself, Schoonover said, the Olathe district works with the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities to get families help.
Noticing the need
Schoonover said district personnel are trained to notice the telltale signs of poverty and homelessness throughout the school year.
When a case comes to the schools’ attention, Schoonover said, “We do all hands on deck to help them.”
Each month, Olathe students covered by the McKinney-Vento Act and their families are invited to a Student Success Night.
“One partner presents to the parents,” Schoonover said. “Workforce Partnership might talk about jobs, and we provide homework tutoring help for the kids in another room. A donor provides the meal for the families.”
Schoonover can access the district’s Health Emergency Fund to pay for a needy student’s glasses or other health-related costs.
There are even programs to productively occupy students’ time on days when school is out for teacher conferences and the like.
Teachers, coaches and nurses in the Shawnee Mission district can access one additional tool when they notice a student in need. Last year, a charitable group called Giving the Basics provided $27,000 worth of deodorants, feminine-hygiene products, toilet paper and the like to students.
Founded in 2010 by Teresa Hamilton and housed in a cave off 31st and Mercier streets, Giving the Basics serves over a dozen school districts and charter schools on the Missouri side of the metro, but only Shawnee Mission in Johnson County. It also works with dozens of other social-service agencies, ranging from homeless shelters to churches.
SNAP, the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that rebranded food stamps in 2008, pays for food for low-income families, but not personal-hygiene items. Hamilton learned about this loophole from an acquaintance in 2008 and built the non-profit organization to address it.
“Kids said they were being bullied, sitting in the back of the classroom because the other kids said they smelled,” Hamilton said. “How is anyone supposed to succeed when they are stuck in shame?”