Center and Hickman Mills school districts in south Kansas City are launching a new initiative to help stabilize homeless students and their families.
“The beauty of launching at the same time is we share so many families,” said Stacy King, the director of family and student services for the Center School District. “Families that were living in Hickman, they move into the Center attendance area and back and forth.”
About 200 students in each district qualify as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law that guarantees an uninterrupted education to children who lack a permanent residence.
“They might live in a hotel, or they’re living in abandoned buildings, or they’re doubled up, having to live with an aunt or an uncle because they’ve been evicted due to financial hardship,” said Leslie Washington, King’s counterpart in Hickman Mills.
School districts have to pay to get homeless students to class, even if their family ends up in a shelter miles away. It’s a costly proposition, and schools don’t get much help footing the bill.
So districts are starting to reach out to community organizations. Center and Hickman Mills are modeling their approach on “Impact Wednesdays,” an initiative in the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools to get all the social service organizations that help homeless families in Wyandotte County in one room.
“They’re on site to help families apply for services that normally there’s a long waiting list for,” Washington said. “Transportation is an issue for a lot of our families.”
The idea is that families can apply in one afternoon for services that might take weeks or months for them to access on their own. Several South Kansas City churches, including Evangel, Colonial Presbyterian and Blue Hills have agreed to partner with the school districts for a soft launch this spring. The ultimate goal is “dignified, stable housing,” King said.
That means the next step is getting more landlords to agree to rent to low-income families, said Stacey Johnson Cosby, president of the South Kansas City Alliance.
“At the core of everything we’re doing is a stable home,” said Johnson Cosby, who is running for city council. “So we need landlords to raise their hand and say, ‘Yes, we’ll work for these families.’ We will provide wraparound services to that family in that home because our goal is that they stay there.”
For now, both Center and Hickman Mills will focus on supporting students already receiving services under McKinney-Vento. But next school year, King hopes the program can expand to families “one argument away” from homelessness.
“Honestly, it is less expensive to support the family in a proactive way than it is to try to double back and try to support a family once they're already in crisis,” King said.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.