School of hardest knocks: Kentucky has more than 30,000 homeless students

20-year-old James Mouser, who graduated in June, left talked with Rick Branham at the Northpoint Academy,  just off U.S. 23 near Pikeville, Ky., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Northpoint  Academy, located in the old Mullins School building, is one of 31 schools in Pike County School District. It is a alternative school that serves students in grades 7-12. Rick Branham, the homeless education coordinator for Pike County schools, has an office in the school and helps several homeless students in the school system. James doesn't have a regular home and often stays with friends. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
20-year-old James Mouser, who graduated in June, left talked with Rick Branham at the Northpoint Academy, just off U.S. 23 near Pikeville, Ky., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. Northpoint Academy, located in the old Mullins School building, is one of 31 schools in Pike County School District. It is a alternative school that serves students in grades 7-12. Rick Branham, the homeless education coordinator for Pike County schools, has an office in the school and helps several homeless students in the school system. James doesn't have a regular home and often stays with friends. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

Going to school saved James Mouser's life in early April.

Mouser, then a senior at Northpoint Academy in Pike County, cut his hand while at school on a Friday. Unable to see a doctor because he has no car, he lanced his own hand over the weekend after it became infected.

When Mouser, 20, returned to school the following Monday, his hand had ballooned. Three dark, angry lines snaked from his hand to inches above his elbow.

Rick Branham, the coordinator for homeless students for Pike County Schools, saw Mouser's hand and immediately took him to the hospital. Mouser stayed there for a week with an IV hooked to his arm, delivering high-dose antibiotics that eventually rid his body of the blood poisoning caused by his "hillbilly doctoring."

"The doctors said I could have died," Mouser said. "The only people who visited me that week were Rick and my brother."

Mouser has lived on and off with his mother since his father died of an aneurism when he was 13, but he spends most nights on someone else's couch, relying on extended family, friends and neighbors for food and shelter.

Before graduating in June, Mouser was one of more than 30,000 homeless students in Kentucky, which has the highest rate of student homelessness in the nation, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of federal education data.

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. Kentucky's rate of homeless students was more than double that of all surrounding states but West Virginia (2.94 percent) and Missouri (2.89 percent).

In five Eastern Kentucky counties, more than 1 in 5 students are considered homeless by school districts.

The number of homeless kids in Kentucky schools has nearly doubled in less than six years, reaching a high of more than 35,000 students in the 2011-12 school year. In 2013-14, the number dipped slightly to a little more than 31,000, but that's still far more than the 17,716 homeless students recorded in 2006-07.

Under a definition by the U.S. Department of Education, children are considered homeless 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.

The number of homeless students has ballooned, but funding has not. That has left school systems scrambling for donations, cobbling together private funds to help feed, clothe and educate students without permanent shelter.

Federal funding for homeless students in Kentucky has remained flat for the past five years at about $1 million, data from the state Department of Education shows. School systems apply for the funding — called a McKinney-Vento grant — through a competitive grant process.

Only seventeen of 172 Kentucky school systems receive the funding. But by law, school systems are required to provide services to homeless children, whether the districts receive the grant or not.

Although every district must designate a staff person as its homeless education coordinator, only four districts have full-time coordinators. Four other school districts are hiring full-time coordinators, according to the Kentucky Department of Education.

Achievement gap

Homeless students often struggle academically, and like James Mouser, they have a hard time finishing school.

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.

For example, 54.7 percent of all elementary students scored in one of the top two categories on reading exams that year, but the number dropped to 39.7 percent for homeless students. One-third of homeless students scored novice — the lowest category — compared to one-fifth of the general student population.

In Lexington, the achievement gap is even wider. No student identified as homeless scored distinguished — the highest category — in reading at the elementary school level, and 65 percent of homeless elementary students scored novice. In comparison, only 23 percent of non-homeless elementary students in Lexington scored novice in reading, and 25 percent scored distinguished.

They do no better on their everyday course work. Of the homeless students in Fayette County who received letter grades during the 2013-14 school year, 50 percent had at least one "D" and 43 percent had at least one "F."

Often, homeless students give up before graduation. According to a 2014 report from America's Promise Alliance, homeless students are 87 percent more likely than their peers to drop out of school before graduation.

In Mouser's case, not having a permanent address made it much tougher to get to school, he said. This past year, he skipped 30 days of school.

"That's not that bad," Mouser said, noting that his attendance was worse in previous years.

"If one of my friends don't wake me up, I won't go," Mouser said.

That lost school time is the main reason so many homeless students struggle academically and emotionally, school officials said.

They often don't form bonds with school staff or their peers, and the constant turnover and lack of consistency can create behavioral problems, Branham said.

"There is no structure and no support in their lives," he said. "We are their support."

Mouser credits Branham and the staff at Northpoint with making it possible for him to be the first member of his family to graduate high school.

Branham, though, credits Mouser.

"He could have quit a long time ago," Branham said. "He didn't."

'Invisible' problem

Kentucky's explosion of homeless children mirrors national trends, said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, a nonprofit advocacy group.

For the 2012-13 school year, the U.S. Department of Education reported more than 1.2 million children who had experienced homelessness. That's an 8 percent increase from the previous year and an 85 percent increase since the 2006-07 school year, Duffield said.

The public is largely unaware of the increase, she said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development conducts the nation's official count of homeless people, but HUD's definition of homeless does not include children who are "couch surfing" with friends and family because their parents can't keep stable housing. Education officials do. That means the "official" homeless count leaves most of these kids out, Duffield said.

"They're invisible," she said. "We have an official government number for homeless that only counts where adults who are homeless are. It keeps the problem of child and youth homelessness invisible and allows people never to see the true scope of the problem."

In Lexington, an annual count of people served in Lexington shelters or other housing programs found 273 homeless children in January 2014. But Fayette County Public Schools reported serving 750 homeless kids in the 2013-14 school year, up 77 percent from 423 the previous year.

"That's the equivalent of a school or two of our smaller elementary schools," said Faith Thompson, the district's homeless education coordinator.

'Mom is in jail'

David Millanti, an administrator at the Kentucky Department of Education, said the dramatic increase in the number of kids who are considered homeless has been driven by a multitude of factors: better identification of homeless children, a depressed economy, and Kentucky's high rate of addiction, which has devastated family units.

But Millanti said he thinks the bulk of the increase is due to better identification.

"We have pushed better training so we can get school districts to better identify homeless children as soon as they enter the system," Millanti said.

Branham — who has been a homeless education coordinator for 18 years — said many school personnel in Pike County have learned to spot the telltale signs of homelessness.

"I even have bus drivers call me and tell me when a kid is getting off at one or two different stops," he said.

In Eastern Kentucky, authorities say two key factors have combined to exacerbate the problem: a rapidly declining coal industry and drug addiction.

Schools in Harlan County had Kentucky's highest percentage of homeless students in the 2013-14 school year, with 26 percent classified as homeless.

T. Michael Howard, the superintendent of Harlan County Schools, said he thinks the number — 1,255 students — is accurate.

"We have so many students who move around, and they are no longer living with their parents but with family members," Howard said. "This is a poor, poor part of the state. We have kids who are living in campers, and that meets the definition of homeless."

Kimberly King, the superintendent of Knott County Schools, said coal has traditionally provided the majority of jobs in Knott County, but most of those jobs are gone, leaving families with little money to pay for stable housing. In the 2013-14 school year, 25 percent of Knott County's 2,394 students were classified as homeless.

"We have a lot of grandparents who are taking care of or raising grandchildren," King said. "The poverty issues here are horrible because of the loss of coal jobs."

King said drugs, too, have decimated many families, and kids are being bounced from relative to relative.

On forms that guardians fill out for Pike County schools, the responses given to questions about the living situations of students tell some of the story about why so many Kentucky kids have no permanent address:

"Mom is in jail. Dad's whereabouts aren't known."

"Don't know where Mom is."

"Faced multiple evictions after I lost my job."

"Both parents are dead."

Meeting basic needs

Because funding to help homeless families is limited, school systems are forced to turn to churches, nonprofits and other agencies to fill the gaps in need.

Sabina Massey, who has been the director of Youth Services for Bryan Station High School for 21 years, spends hours many mornings trying to find a church or a nonprofit that can help pay a utility bill or rent to keep a student's family housed.

With the help of God's Pantry, Massey started a food pantry earlier this year in the utility closet of her office at Bryan Station. During the school year, she provided food for 20 to 30 people a week.

"We are hoping that helping with food will free up other money that can be used to pay rent and utilities," Massey said.

Millanti, of the Kentucky Department of Education, said the state is pushing school districts to use federal money designated for homeless students on educational programs, such as tutoring, to increase student achievement.

Little money goes to pay for basics, such as clothes and school supplies.

Fayette County received $52,000 in federal McKinney-Vento grants during each of the past three years. It will receive $49,000 each of the next three years. In addition, Fayette County and other school districts use Title 1 funding — a federal program to help educate poor students — to augment the McKinney-Vento money. In Lexington, the money pays for a part-time coordinator who meets with homeless high school students to encourage post-graduation planning — either vocational school, jobs or college, Thompson said.

To help homeless elementary students, the school system held a four-week summer camp program at the Academy at Millcreek in 2014, said Greg Ross, the elementary school's principal.

"We saw some huge gains in our test scores," Ross said. Some students posted a 20-point increase on certain portions of standardized tests.

This summer, Millcreek had two programs for homeless students: one that focused on kindergarten through second grade and one for third through fifth grade. More than 50 students participated in the multi-week programs, which were geared toward boosting achievement and preparing students for the next grade.

"We saw substantial growth again this summer," Ross said. "We had a lot of students who really fell in love with learning, and that will help them transition into the classroom in the fall. We had a student tell one of our teachers that he didn't realize that he loved to write."

Like Massey, Branham has built a network of social-service programs to help meet the myriad of needs of more than 500 homeless students in Pike County Schools.

Helping Hand, run by a network of churches in Pike County, has a thrift store housed in the former gym on Northpoint's campus. If a student needs clothes, Branham walks across the parking lot behind his office and gets clothes for free. Helping Hand also can assist if a family needs additional food or help with utility bills or rent.

In Northpoint's basement, Branham has a closet of donated supplies from charities and groups. Some of the items include detergent, shampoo, book bags, school supplies and lunch boxes.

Branham recently applied to BB&T bank for a $500,000 grant that would help finance a residential home for boys ages 18 to 21 who are homeless but are attending high school, college or a job-training program. School districts in Owensboro and Daviess County also are pursuing a residential home for homeless students after seeing a dramatic increase in the number of homeless high school students.

Branham and Massey said that if students' most basic needs aren't met, they won't come to school.

"I had a kid in my office the other day, and his pants were four inches too long," Massey said.

The high school student didn't want to go to class with ill-fitting secondhand clothes.

"I told him to go find something in our closet that he could wear for a minute, and then I hemmed his pants so he could go to class," she said.

More than manual labor

Above Branham's desk, clipped to a chalkboard, are two pictures of James Mouser in a cap and gown.

Branham scraped together the money to pay for graduation photos for Mouser and other homeless students. The photos are a reminder of how far Mouser has come.

After attempting to set a classroom on fire at Phelps High School, he was sent to a day treatment program in Pike County. When he completed that program, he went to Northpoint Academy, outside of Pikeville, where he met Branham.

Branham and the staff at Northpoint convinced Mouser that getting his high school diploma would pay dividends in the future.

Mouser graduated June 4.

Helping Hand bought Mouser a string trimmer and a gas can so he could make money doing lawn work in the area where he mostly stays, outside Phelps. There is no public transportation in Pike County, and Mouser doesn't have a car. Finding a job beyond Phelps is difficult.

Mouser is done with school, but Branham isn't done with Mouser. The two still talk. Mouser can do more than manual labor, Branham said.

"I've told him I would help him with school," Branham said. "He needs further training."

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