Is this Jackson County district neglecting its mandate to help homeless students stay in school?
School districts are required by law to help homeless children stay in school. Most Kansas City-area districts take that role seriously, but the Blue Springs School District may be undercounting its unhoused kids — and failing to provide them critical services.
This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and The Seattle Times, Street Sense Media and WAMU/DCist.
The Blue Springs School District’s description of itself reads like something out of a realtor’s brochure. Its website notes the district’s proximity to “social, cultural and educational activities.” And it informs visitors that “our mostly middle to upper-middle class community enjoys a stable economy.”
But that description is not the reality for the family of Kathleen Barnes, who moved in the summer into the Welcome Inn off Interstate 70 in Blue Springs.
The family of seven included three elementary-age children, a 4-year-old girl, a teenager and two adults. During their stay at the Welcome Inn, they paid $245 a week for a single motel room. The family has no car, so Barnes walked to two nearby jobs and her husband caught a ride to his with a family member. One of Barnes’ jobs was in a convenience store, and meals usually came from there.
Barnes’ family moves around a lot, so she knew when she moved to Blue Springs that she needed to get in touch with the person in the school district who assists homeless families. She was initially told to call the public safety office — the district’s police force, which is the first point of contact for new families.
When Barnes explained her situation, she was connected with Danica Fuimaono, whose job is to make sure the Blue Springs School District complies with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal law that guarantees rights to homeless school children.
“I already knew about McKinney-Vento so I specifically asked about it,” Barnes said.
Once she was in touch with Fuimaono, her children were enrolled in school “quickly and painlessly,” she said. They visited a clothes closet and were signed up for free meals during school hours and to take home on weekends.
“Most schools are pretty good if you mention being homeless,” Barnes said.
But data and interviews with people knowledgeable about student homelessness suggest BSSD does less than most other districts in the region to identify and help families in transition.
It reaches and serves many fewer homeless students than neighboring districts. And experts said its unusual practice of requiring new families to enroll at the offices of the school district’s police force almost certainly discourages families on the margins from revealing their circumstances or even staying in the district.
“That right there speaks to a misperception of students as in some way problematic or dangerous or threatening,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates on behalf of homeless school children.
“It’s not a place where you build trust. It’s not a place where you have sensitive conversations,” she said. “I think that’s a huge barrier to identification and support.”
School districts’ commitment to identifying and serving homeless students is highlighted in newly released data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Using district-level data that state education departments reported to the U.S. Department of Education for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, CPI calculated that at least 300,000 students in the U.S. each year miss out on services they are entitled to under the McKinney-Vento Act, which Congress passed in 1987.
"That right there speaks to a misperception of students as in some way problematic or dangerous or threatening"Barbara Duffield, SchoolHouse Connection
The legislation guarantees the right to an uninterrupted public education for schoolchildren who meet a broad definition of homelessness, which includes living in shelters, motels or trailer parks or doubling up with other people.
Under the law, every public school district must designate a staff liaison to coordinate McKinney-Vento services. Districts are required to waive certain admission requirements to enroll children in classes quickly. If students become homeless during the academic year, districts often provide transportation so they won’t have to change schools. Schools may opt to provide tutoring, laundry facilities and hygiene supplies.
The McKinney-Vento Act is recognized as an essential tool for helping homeless children stay in school. But families whose lives are upended because of eviction, domestic violence or other disruptions often don’t know they qualify for help. It’s pretty much up to school districts to decide how diligently they want to comply. Around Kansas City, those efforts vary widely.
Blue Springs district’s enrollment policy ‘acts as a deterrent’
The number of students in a district who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on their family incomes is frequently used to gauge whether districts are adequately identifying and serving homeless children.
Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education notifies school districts that they may be undercounting homeless students if fewer than 7% of children in the subsidized meal programs receive McKinney-Vento services.
Around Kansas City, percentages of free and reduced-price lunch students who received homeless services in the 2019-20 school year run as high as 14% in the Fort Osage School District and 8.2% in Kansas City Public Schools. (More recent counts of homeless students that KCUR obtained from several districts did not vary significantly from the 2019-20 numbers.)
Among area districts that enroll at least 1,000 students, Blue Springs serves the lowest percentage of homeless students.
In 2019-20, the district enrolled 14,669 students, based on U.S. Department of Education data. Only 77 students received homeless services. That amounts to 0.5% of overall enrollment and 1.7% of the 4,456 students who received free and reduced-price lunches — well below DESE’s expectations.
While much of BSSD is made up of middle- and upper-income neighborhoods, as its website mentions, poverty exists in its shadows. Several motels along Interstate 70 in Blue Springs are last-resort housing for families who have been evicted or unable to rent homes for other reasons. Some district families rent subsidized housing units.
Melissa Douglas, the McKinney-Vento liaison for Kansas City Public Schools, said she has always wondered why the homeless count for BSSD is so consistently low.
“You have all those hotels,” she said. “You have to have homeless students there. We know they’re there because we’re transporting them from the hotels.”
Douglas, who is recognized as a leader among area McKinney-Vento liaisons, said Blue Springs doesn't network or share information much with other districts.
"It is the one school district that typically does not play nice with everybody else," she said.
Through its director of public relations, Katie Woolf, BSSD declined to meet with KCUR reporters to discuss its outreach to homeless students. The district did provide limited responses to a list of emailed questions, including the information that it is currently serving 69 McKinney-Vento students.
The district said it posts signs in English and Spanish in every school building to notify students that assistance is available. Nearly every staffer receives online training once a year on how to identify students who may be eligible for McKinney-Vento services.
Those are the minimum steps taken by most districts. Along with counselors, BSSD also employs nine social workers who can spot and help students who may have lost their homes.
For families new to the school district, the first point of contact is not a counselor or social worker, or even a school secretary. BSSD requires new families to enroll through its Department of Public Safety, which is staffed by certified, usually uniformed, police officers. For at least several years — up until this school year — the department’s executive director, Sam Gilkey, also acted as the McKinney-Vento liaison.
“We are one of the few districts in the state who have our own police force,” the district said in an email. “DPS is used as the first point of contact to ensure consistency and accuracy and to help streamline the registration process.”
BSSD said new families are asked about their housing status during their first interaction with the Department of Public safety. If they are homeless, or need a waiver of the district’s residency requirements, they work with the McKinney-Vento liaison. Currently, that is Fuimaono, who is also the director of student and diversity services.
The district added: “The enrollment application includes all basic contact information (name, phone, email, etc.) along with questions regarding any prior suspension, expulsion, or felony status of the student being enrolled.”
Earl J. Edwards, a professor at Boston College who studies the connection between educational systems and poverty and homelessness, said he didn’t know of another school district that uses a police force to enroll students.
"I was like, wait, I’m going to the police department to enroll my kids in school?"Kathleen Barnes, mother of Blue Springs students
“Marginalized populations have negative interactions with a lot of institutions,” he said. “If a family that already had a negative interaction with law enforcement has to go to a school district and then have their first interaction be with someone who is part of law enforcement, that can make them … shy away from even going into that district … or not disclose the salient information that would actually help them and their family. So, yeah, it acts as a deterrent.”
Barnes said she knew about Blue Springs’ enrollment policy from a previous stay in the district. “They do that weirdly,” she said. “I was like, wait, I’m going to the police department to enroll my kids in school?”
Fort Osage, Independence districts actively seek to help homeless families
BSSD’s unwelcoming stance toward homeless families contrasts sharply with the practices of adjoining school districts.
To its east, Fort Osage School District served 346 homeless students in the 2019-20 school year. That’s more than four times as many as Blue Springs – even though Fort Osage, with an overall enrollment of 5,042 students that year, is less than half the size of Blue Springs.
Like most school districts in the region, Fort Osage enrolls new families online, with school office personnel providing backup if parents encounter a problem. Deanna Rymer, a social worker and the district’s McKinney-Vento liaison, said the staff is constantly on alert for students who may be experiencing housing instability.
Telltale signs at enrollment could be the inability to produce a utility bill or the absence of a birth certificate. Lax hygiene, uncharged Chromebooks or chronic tardiness are other possible signs of homelessness that teachers and staff look for during the school year. If there is any question about a family’s housing status, Rymer urges them to enter the McKinney-Vento program for extra help.
“We love kids,” Rymer said. “We love to educate kids. I think that’s what keeps our McKinney-Vento kids here. Because even if they fall homeless, the parents want to find housing here.”
Just west of BSSD, the Independence School District, which enrolls about the same number of students, served 755 homeless children in the 2019-20 school year. Independence is a less affluent community than Blue Springs: more than 70% of its students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. But 5% of its total enrollment and more than 7% of students in the subsidized meal plan received McKinney-Vento services, indicating a much more robust effort to reach and serve homeless families.
“Even prior to me coming to the district, we had a very strong program around McKinney-Vento,” said Nicole Sequeira, the director of family services and McKinney-Vento liaison, who has been with the district for 21 years. “It’s almost like embedded in the system.”
The district has more than 30 social workers in its school buildings, Sequeira said. The staff receives frequent training reminders on how to spot potentially homeless students. Sequeira checks a report every morning that signals which enrolling families might be experiencing housing instability. She and her staff build relationships with families, offering help and connecting them with community resources for mental health, housing and other services. If children stop coming to class, social workers go into the community and look for them.
“The vast majority of our families that are in homeless situations are actually working parents,” Sequeira said. “They’re in generational poverty, or they’re a paycheck away from homelessness. And something happens and they don’t have those security networks to fall back on. And it’s not long until you’re on the streets.”
Serving homeless students is expensive
While Missouri state education officials expect school districts to have vigorous McKinney-Vento programs, there is no penalty for those that don’t. And, apart from modest federal grants channeled through the states to a few districts, the incentives for serving homeless students are mostly about better educational outcomes and improved lives.
Based on data and interviews that KCUR conducted with multiple school officials, many school districts in Kansas City share a solid commitment to students whose families lack stable housing.
The Shawnee Mission and Olathe school districts enlist multiple community partners to help students who have lost their homes or are at risk of doing so. Olathe Public Schools recently started an effort to assist recent high school graduates who used McKinney-Vento services with job training and college applications.
The Raytown School District hired eight people over the summer to make phone calls and home visits to families on the margins to make sure they started the school year on time.
Douglas, the KCPS McKinney-Vento liaison, networks with social service agencies and passes out pens, notepads and other forms of swag with her office’s contact information — all in hopes of finding more students. Her office is open year-round, and she publicizes a special email address that families can use to get in touch with her.
“Everybody has to be super-active and very diligent about making sure we are getting those students identified,” Douglas said.
But serving homeless families has a financial cost. Unlike the free and reduced-lunch program, for which schools are reimbursed with federal dollars, the expenses of serving homeless students are mostly borne by the school districts themselves.
That includes transportation. If a family loses their residence in one school district and finds temporary shelter in another district, their students have the right to remain in their original school district for the remainder of the academic year. So every school day, dozens of cabs and minibuses pick up students in shelters, motels and other people’s homes and drop them off at their familiar schools.
Kansas City Public Schools often spends $1 million or more some school years transporting homeless students. Raytown spent $620,000 last year, mostly for cab fares. Fort Osage spent more than $1 million in 2019 and $853,070 last year.
BSSD said it spent about $150,000 last year.
“If you identify students that are considered homeless, it’s more than likely going to cost your district a lot of money,” Sequeira said.
Duffield said she doesn’t think districts intentionally undercount homeless students to save money. But she said many leaders fail to grasp the long-term gains of robust McKinney-Vento programs.
“Does the institution see that the cost of transportation to keep kids stable in school is actually investing in better educational outcomes, is actually leading to a higher attendance rate?” she said. “It’s more a lack of prioritization of these students, a lack of understanding who they are.”
Some advocates suggested that districts may see other drawbacks to welcoming homeless students. Their circumstances might show up in lower attendance rates and test scores — markers that affect accreditation and detract from a district’s bragging rights.
“They’re an affluent district, or seemingly affluent, and they don’t want to have that black mark on their report card,” said Rymer, the Fort Osage homeless liaison.
Douglas said she thinks that’s what’s going on with Blue Springs.
“I think it’s them trying to come across as that persona of ‘we’re suburban and we don’t have them’ and suburban is better than urban living,” she said. “And we don’t have the same problems as being in the city, because we’re out here, and we have ways and means.”
A transient childhood
About a week after KCUR interviewed Kathleen Barnes, her family moved to another motel, this one in the North Kansas City School District. Barnes said she opted to have her children remain in their Blue Springs elementary school. They began riding back and forth in a cab, with the North Kansas City and Blue Springs school districts splitting the costs.
Barnes said she was pleased with how her children’s schooling was going. “They’ve done really good working with my kids in reading, ’cause they’re all behind in reading,” she said.
The family’s new motel room costs even more than the Welcome Inn, but it is a suite with a small kitchen, Barnes said. She has found a new job to walk to, and her husband kept his old job, but he now has to ride buses to get there.
Barnes said she constantly looks at apartment listings, but her family can never quite save up enough to afford a place.
“Everybody’s raising their prices,” she said. “You used to be able to get three bedrooms for $900 (a month). Now it’s like, $1,600 for a three bedroom.”
On Wednesday, her family increased in size by one. Barnes' 19-year-old daughter gave birth to a baby girl.
In a life consumed with getting through each day, Barnes seemed surprised at a question about her long-term educational goals for her children.
“Just that they figure out what they want to do and go after what they need to do that,” she said.
It’s a simple aspiration — and for Barnes’ transient family, a fragile one. And it’s one that school districts can help to make or break.