An invisible issue: Homelessness in Ann Arbor Public Schools

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

A student at Skyline High School (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR - The average age of a child experiencing homelessness in Washtenaw County is seven, according to the Washtenaw Housing Alliance.

The number of parents and children who experienced homelessness in Washtenaw County in 2016 was 2,026. And 1,258 of those were school-aged children served through the Washtenaw Intermediate School District Education Project.

Many of these families are living in Ann Arbor and their children attend Ann Arbor Public Schools. It's an issue experts are calling invisible due to a lack of awareness of the realities of local families in transition.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The woman at the heart of the issue is Alicia Maylone, the McKinney-Vento and foster care liaison in the Ann Arbor Public Schools.

The McKinney-Vento liaison is a federally required position within every school district. It was enacted in 1987 to ensure children experiencing homelessness receive the same education as their non-homeless peers in public schools.

Students attend class at Forsythe Middle School (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Part one of the law states:

Each State educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.

Maylone fields phone calls, visits families and links them with resources within and outside of the school system. 

She works closely with the Housing Access for Washtenaw County, sometimes on a daily basis, when families are awaiting shelter. In cases when emergency shelter is needed, she turns to the nonprofit M.I.S.S.I.O.N., which provides urgent resources and shelter.

But every case is different, which can make it difficult to meet each family's needs as quickly as they'd like.

"There are times that the resources fit the need and there are times that there may be barriers that are tougher to tackle," she said. "The reality for a lot of families is that maybe they’re not quite at that crisis level, but they’re experiencing transition nonetheless. Our goal, of course, is to focus on the students and the children and support them in the education, because what the McKinney-Vento law is there for, first and foremost, is to help with school stability and access."

Maylone said no day is the same and described her position as "a lot of moving parts," but one thing is consistent: the shock members of the community feel when they learn children in their schools are experiencing homelessness.

"Typically, the idea of homelessness in children and youth, and being an invisible topic, is certainly not just akin to Ann Arbor -- that is statewide," she said. "But I think it comes at an even higher rate of invisibility when you’re talking about a more affluent community because there becomes a bigger and more dramatic spectrum of experiences for people between what the majority of the community may have versus what some of the more struggling families do not. So, it certainly does come as a surprising shock, often, with the folks that I communicate with."

A middle schooler at Forsythe collects items from her locker (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Ann Arbor Public Schools has four members that make up its Access and Opportunity Division. The McKinney-Vento liaison, two attendance advocates and the district 504 coordinator, who helps children with disabilities receive the support they need.

The division works closely together to identify children who might be experiencing homelessness. Identification is the core of their work, since many families won't come forward for fear of being punished or, in the worst-case scenario, losing custody of their children. 

"Of course there’s a lot of fear disclosing a situation that a family could be in that could pose additional challenges to them," she said. 

Maylone said the number of families identified by Ann Arbor Public Schools as being homeless year to year is between 350 to 375. She says the number has risen, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's due to increased cases of homelessness.

"I think it’s more attributable to our own identification processes and practices," she said. "From registration to outreach to following up with families, whether that’s from an indication during enrollment or from an indication as situations arise -- schools are doing a better job recognizing students in transition and the impact on their education and offering support.

"And my hope is that families are feeling more reassured, that the Ann Arbor Schools, that our district, that our staff, that our community are looking at this as a way to help and support and not anything punitive and going to have consequences."

Students during break at Skyline High School (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

She said signs of homelessness in school include:

  • Lack of education continuity
  • Transportation and attendance problems
  • Reactions or statements by parents, guardians or students
  • Lack of personal space after school
  • Poor health, nutrition and/or hygiene
  • Social and behavioral concerns

Overall, McKinney-Vento students often have poorer test scores, qualify at higher rates for special education and are nine times more likely to repeat a grade. Nearly half stop attending school for at least one period of time during the homelessness.

"Those are some pretty alarming statistics when interventions are not in place to get kids to school and to help them catch up and do well if they have experienced those gaps," said Maylone. "School stability is No. 1 because we can’t always prevent or immediately impact housing stability but we know we can make a difference with educational stability."

However, as Maylone mentioned, when families are experiencing a transition, school stability can be difficult to put first.

Lauren Velez, the associate director of services at Avalon Housing, a local nonprofit aiming to end homelessness in Washtenaw County, said basic survival is the No. 1 priority.

"It can be hard to keep school at the forefront of your mind when you’re a parent and you’re worrying about where you’re going to sleep the next night," said Velez. "It’s a difficult balance."

Trust-building

According to Velez, some families who are experiencing homelessness aren't going through it for the first time and negative experiences with schools in the past may be what keeping them from seeking help.

"I think one of the most challenging things that we encounter regarding homelessness in the school system is often poverty is very generational," said Velez. "So, oftentimes, the families that are experiencing homelessness have experienced poverty or instability or even homelessness in their own childhoods, and they don’t always have a super strong, positive experience with school from when they were growing up, which I think makes it harder for them to develop good relationships as parents with schools sometimes.

"And it’s not for lack of wanting or really being committed to their kids’ education, but I think that their own experiences can sometimes impact how comfortable they feel. Sometimes you’ll see a situation where one or both parents are working multiple jobs and it can be really hard to get to Curriculum Night or Meet-the-Teacher-Night or conferences and things like that."

Educators at Ann Arbor's Eberwhite School have partnered with Avalon and regularly visit its community centers to meet families who aren't able to come to the school for special events.

"It’s such an easy solution and it makes such a huge difference," said Velez. "Just walking into the school and you recognize somebody or you know somebody that you can go to, I think it has a big impact."

Students at Skyline High School (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Trust is central to a parent-teacher or parent-school relationship, said Debi Khasnabis, clinical associate professor at University of Michigan's School of Education.

"Often, teachers are really wishing that parents would be more open with them," said Khasnabis. "It’s one of the first things we hear when we talk to teachers: 'If only they would tell us, then we could help.' And it’s coming from a good place of wanting to support students and their families. But, really the root issue there is this trust.

"... it might be something that we’ve done or it might be something that teachers before us have done, or it might be something through generations where distrust is built in between families and teachers, or families and a larger power structure. If you’ve faced homelessness, you’ve been let down. So a lot of the responsibility is on us as educators and as school-based personnel to build trust."

Turning knowledge into action

Khasnabis co-teaches the course Homelessness in Schools and Society: Engaged Practice in School Serving Organizations with Simona Goldin in the School of Education. They designed the class together with Velez and Layton Price, Avalon Housing's community and youth program coordinator.

As part of the 14-week course, students volunteer at Avalon's after-school programs for six weeks.

"I feel very encouraged knowing that there will be more educators out there in the world that will be better equipped to address issues that may come up in classrooms that are challenges or have been challenges for kids experiencing homelessness and trauma in general," said Price. "That’s one of my favorite things about it: This awareness is getting spread out into the community and it’s not just trapped within our agency."

Open lecture by Debi Khasnabis and Simona Goldin at the University of Michigan on Oct. 26, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

During one of their open lectures titled "What I Wish My Teacher Knew: Homelessness in Schools and Society," they presented a real-life case in which a homeless student's grades began slipping. The teacher said when she called his mother she was irritable and uncooperative. She was considering speaking to his basketball coach to suspend his team involvement until his grades improved.

They challenged the group to put themselves in the teacher's shoes, and showed them a video of the student's story. Isaiah was an African-American high school student who lived with his single mother. He revealed that for much of his life, they slept in cars and bathed by washing up in sinks at public laundromats. 

He was also a gifted basketball player, one of the top players in his city's high school league, and was hoping to receive a full-ride basketball scholarship to attend college.

Once the video was over, Goldin and Khasnabis asked whether the group saw his situation differently, specifically his grades and his mother's tone with his teacher. They also raised an issue that is central to the course: Race.

"We, as people in this country, don’t get many chances to talk about race in ways that are nuanced and thoughtful and engaging and engaged across identities," said Goldin. "I’d say that my hopes for our students is that they learn some careful humility that is important for any kind of professional work and that they be willing and able to have conversations around race and inequality."

According to the Washtenaw Housing Alliance, 62 percent of the 5,346 people who experienced homelessness in Washtenaw County in 2016 were African-American. 

Maylone, Velez and Price have all spoken to students in the course throughout its three years, sharing their knowledge and expertise. Price gives individual feedback on student projects.

Students attend class at Forsythe Middle School (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"Hiding in plain view"

Overall, Maylone said homelessness affects children of all ages in Ann Arbor. 

"We’re talking about whole families, so we’re seeing children in every grade level or unaccompanied youth themselves," she said. "It’s certainly something that can happen to any family and to any child at any age. If you think of a situation, I’m sure we've seen it."

Goldin said more awareness is needed to make the issue of homeless schoolchildren more visible and reduce the instances of families without shelter.

"There is a ton of comfort and privilege in our town," she said. "It is our responsibility, as people who live here, to think about who has and who doesn’t. And there’s lots of kids inside of our schools that are homeless. I really do think in some ways it’s more hidden in towns like Ann Arbor and Madison and Boulder than it is in other places.

"If you think about it, that’s such an incredible opportunity to break down barriers and to shatter complacency, to put a face to the ways in which our neighbors are suffering. For many students, they’re hiding in plain view."

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