The number of homeless students in Lexington schools has nearly doubled in the past three years, according to a new report that recommends more money and attention to schools with the highest percentage of homeless students.
The Lexington Fair Housing Council’s analysis of local and state education data show that the number of homeless students in the county jumped from 410 in the 2012-13 school year to 795 in the 2014-15 school year. That’s an increase of 94 percent.
It also found that elementary schools with the highest percentage of homeless students were ranked much lower in overall academic performance. Those schools also had teachers with fewer years of experience than those schools with few or no homeless students.
For example, teachers at William Wells Brown Elementary, where more than 11 percent of students were classified as homeless in 2014-15, had an average of 7.5 years of experience. The school’s academic performance ranked in the 20th percentile among Kentucky elementary schools. Meanwhile, teachers at Rosa Parks Elementary School, which reported one homeless student in 2014-2015, had an average of 18 years of experience. That school ranked in the 99th percentile for academic performance.
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“The goal is for us to understand the link between housing and schools,” said Art Crosby, the executive director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council, a nonprofit group that investigates housing complaints. “Your educational opportunities are sometimes impacted by where you live.”
The report makes several recommendations to address the disparity in homeless student populations in Fayette County schools, including:
▪ Additional funding should be sought or raised to help schools with the highest percentage of homeless students rather than adopting district-wide programs to help homeless children;
▪ City funding should be targeted to areas of greatest challenges. There should be more collaborative efforts between neighborhood stakeholders, city officials and school leaders to help schools with problems.
‘It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know’
Fayette County Schools Superintendent Manny Caulk dismissed the report, saying the time for “looking at data and calling attention to this issue is past.”
“While I appreciate the time and effort invested by the council in producing this report, unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know,” Caulk said. “Speaking not as a superintendent, but as an individual who experienced housing insecurity and food insecurity as a child, I implore the council to look at the root causes of homelessness in our community and develop bold recommendations to create a safety net for our families and children. I know what it took to lift my family out of poverty, and I had hoped this report would offer bold recommendations to address the real problem.”
In his prepared statement, Caulk said the school system is already focusing its attention on low-performing schools and those schools that have high homeless student populations.
“This summer we identified our schools with the highest populations of homelessness and offered summer learning enrichment,” Caulk said. “We partner with medical providers to offer free health, vision and dental care in our schools.”
Caulk said the entire community must work together to address the growing problem of student homelessness.
“I would encourage the council to broaden its focus to not only what schools can do once a student is experiencing homelessness, but also how to engage our community to take bold steps to address the root causes and keep children from ever wondering where they will sleep tonight,” Caulk said.
Crosby said the intent of the report was to highlight that students who are identified as homeless are concentrated in certain schools and in certain parts of town, not to chastise or criticize Fayette County schools.
“We still hope we can develop a partnership between the schools and social services to address this issue,” Crosby said.
Charlie Lanter, director of Lexington’s Homeless Prevention and Intervention Office, agreed that increased communication between the city, the school system and homeless providers is needed. He and others in the homeless provider community have asked to meet with Caulk to discuss student homelessness but that meeting has not yet happened.
“We continue to look forward to improved communications with the school district about how we can work together to address student homelessness,” Lanter said. “We would like to see improved communications and relationships not just with the schools and the city but with the entire network of folks that serve the homeless.”
An August 2015 Herald-Leader investigation found that Kentucky had the highest rate of student homelessness in the nation, with more than 30,000 homeless students. In five Eastern Kentucky counties, more than 1 in 5 students was considered homeless by school districts in the 2012-13 school year.
Those students often struggle academically. On Kentucky’s year-end test, the percentage of homeless students scoring proficient or distinguished in math and reading was 15 to 18 points lower than the student population as a whole in 2013-14, the newspaper found.
Children are considered homeless by the U.S. Department of Education if they are living in a shelter, motel or campground, car, outside, or with another family member due to loss of housing or economic hardship.
At the time, Fayette County didn’t have a full-time homeless education coordinator, despite the increasing number of students identified as homeless.
The school district announced in May that it would hire a full-time homeless education coordinator. James Hodge was named to the position this summer.
Money to address student homelessness is sparse. Fayette County is one of 17 school districts in Kentucky to receive a federal grant to address homeless students. But it’s not much — less than $50,000 for three years. Schools can also tap federal money earmarked for poor students, called Title I funds.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provides the federal funding that is used to pay for shelters and transitional housing, but its definition of homeless is limited to people living in shelters or on the street and not students moving from couch to couch. That means many of the students who are counted as homeless don’t meet the requirements to receive help through the city’s homeless providers.
“I get calls from the school’s Family Resource Centers all the time,” Lanter said. “You hear the description of the situation. The family is not literally homeless but the situation is no less of a crisis just because it doesn’t meet an arbitrary definition of homeless.”
To help, the city and Community Action Council started a two year, $200,000 pilot program in February to help homeless families and kids.
“It filled up close to immediately and has stayed full,” Lanter said. “We have addressed a need but have not addressed it adequately.”
In total, the city spends more than $3 million each year for homeless prevention services and shelters.
Nearly 5 percent of Kentucky’s 685,167 students were classified as homeless in the 2012-13 school year, the latest year that homeless student totals are available for all 50 states. That’s the highest in the nation.
Other Kentucky communities have been able to consolidate resources to address the growing number of homeless teens.
In Owensboro, officials are raising money for a dorm to house older, homeless high school students. The Owensboro and Daviess County schools teamed with an education foundation to raise money for the Empowerment Academy, which will be housed on the campus of Mount St. Joseph in Maple Mount.
Kids who bounce from couch to couch struggle just as much as kids who sleep in shelters or on the street, said Crosby. If schools are worried about test scores and achievement, they must help address the needs of homeless students, he said.
“You can’t expect them to perform well on tests if they don’t have a place to go at the end of the day,” Crosby said.