Services abound for homeless, low-income studentsSep 08, 2020 01:50PM ● By Jet Burnham
All items in the Principal’s Store have been donated. (Robyn Luke/WJHS)
By Jet Burnham | [email protected]
The nearly 1,900 homeless students and 11,000 on the free or reduced school lunch program in Jordan School District are in good hands. The district is bursting with support resources including Principal’s Pantries, McKinney–Vento homeless liaisons and Title 1 programs, all with the goal to meet students’ physical needs so they can be successful in school.
“The whole purpose of it is, if they are hungry or cold, they don't think about schoolwork, and it takes them off the path of graduation,” said Robyn Luke, homeless liaison at West Jordan High School. “I'm there to keep their physical needs met so they can stay focused on graduating.”
Homeless liaisons, part of the McKinney–Vento program serving students who are homeless or living in severe economic circumstances, are stationed at each high school in JSD and at middle and elementary schools as needed. They distribute food, clothing, coats, shoes and hygiene products for students in need. Students stop by the Principal’s Pantry for something to eat if they haven't eaten breakfast or lunch. They can also take a bag of food home for the weekend. Luke said students often worry about standing out among their peers. They are relieved to be able to get some nice clothes and a warm coat from those donated to the Principal’s Store so they can blend in with their peers.
Hilda Lloyd, homeless liaison for all of Jordan District, said the McKinney–Vento program gives students options and opportunities to access education and to stay in school despite difficult living circumstances. She identifies problems that keep students from coming to school and finds solutions to them. One student couldn’t afford to get to school; she provided them with a gas card. One family had only one set of clean clothes so two boys were taking turns going to school and other students were sleeping in their cars with no access to clean clothing; Lloyd installed a washer and dryer for students at West Jordan and Copper Hills High Schools.
While distance learning this spring was a struggle for many students, it was a positive change for McKinney–Vento students, who often get distracted by worrying about how to overcome obstacles to get to school and to fit in while there, said Lloyd.
“I think the students had the opportunity to be online without having the stress about getting to school and getting homework done,” Hilda said. “It was a time for them to focus, and there were no other things that were holding them back.”
With the McKinney–Vento liaisons staying in contact with the 156 seniors in the program this spring, for the first time ever, 100% of the seniors in the program graduated.
“We just have amazing people who make sure that these kids graduate and have the best opportunity to be successful after graduation,” Jordan Director of Communications Sandy Riesgraf said.
Superintendent Anthony Godfrey recently highlighted the work of liaisons on his Supercast. He called them “creative problem solvers,” “miracle workers” and “life-savers.” Luke also recently received the Outstanding Support Professional for 2020 award for her work expanding the Principal’s Store at WJHS.
Title I schools also provide support resources for students in need. Evelyn Sadler is the parent family liaison for students of the seven Title 1 schools in Jordan District. She helps students and families access local resources and assistance programs. She helps families register for programs to help with heating bills or provides bus tokens for parents to get to a job interview. She coordinates with principals to schedule visions screenings and free eyeglasses, dental clinics, immunization clinics, visits from the Utah Food Bank and donations of shoes, coats and school supplies.
“We have programs to try and take away from any of the financial concerns that families might have about their kids succeeding in school,” said Heather Reich, a teacher at Majestic Elementary, a Title 1 school. “Our families, they might be struggling, but they do support their kids in school and they do believe in education. It's just helping them overcome some other things to break those barriers down.”
Families can also access family support services such as the Family Learning Centers located at Heartland and Majestic Elementary Schools.
“The Learning Center is super important because it draws the families in and gives them information in order to improve their lives, which ultimately is going to improve our kids’ lives and then, really, our community and our society,” said Reich.
On the front lines of caring for low-income students are caring and dedicated teachers like Reich and her co-teacher, Kyla Asmar. They teach sixth grade at Majestic Elementary, which has the highest proportion of low-income and homeless students in the district. The two teachers have received an Effective Teachers in High Poverty Schools Award for the past three years.
Reich said the secret to their success is caring about the kids and setting high expectations for them.
“I absolutely love my kids, and they know that I do, and I think that that's important,” Reich said. “They know that I care about them, and so they want to do well.”
Majestic teachers and administrators, including the Principal of the Year Kathe Riding, work tirelessly to take care of needs that would distract students from learning and being successful in school.
“Almost everything is harder for them,” Reich said. “They're not sure if their water is going to be on when they get home. That's definitely something that I never worried about as an 11-year-old.”
The district programs are in place to serve students but can only help if the families are aware of them. Lloyd said many students are embarrassed to ask for help, are unaware they qualify, or are fearful of negative repercussions from sharing information about their circumstances.
“My biggest fear is not meeting a student's needs that really needs them because they want to be silent about it,” Lloyd said.
Earning the trust of a student is the biggest challenge and the biggest joy of her job, said Luke. She was able to help a number of new families this spring when the pandemic exacerbated their situations, and they reached out for help.
“That's one positive that came from the coronavirus,” Luke said. “They found out I was there and I could help. I really hope we can find more. I know they're there; I'm sure there's homeless kids there. But I have to develop the trust, and they need to get the word out.”
If you are interested in supporting students, contact a school liaison to find out what items students need or donate through the Jordan Education Foundation.