Kansas City schools stepping up to help homeless students succeed

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When students enroll for the school year in Kansas City Public Schools, their parents are given a survey, asking if they've been without a home for more than six months.

The answer determines if they'll become part of the Students in Transition program. The program helps homeless students and any student without a permanent, stable place to sleep at night.

"Once a student is identified, we go through the process of working to make sure that they are able to get transportation to get to school, they have the uniforms or the requirements that are needed to attend school and in some cases link that to community resources that are needed at that time," said Samara Crawford Herrera, manager of community partnerships, advocacy and engagement for Kansas City Public Schools.

KCPS helps any child whether they're staying with different friends or relatives or living in shelters.

According to the McKinley-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students have the right to stay in their school of origin. To make that happen, the district sometimes provides a cab service or bus passes.

"Kids are great," Crawford Herrera said. "They're resilient. But anytime you introduce instability to their academic environment, it produces long-term effects. We find that when students are moving from house to house or school to school, they're often several grade levels behind where they're supposed to be because their education is just so fractured and disjointed. That's why the priority is to stabilize their education as much as possible."

About 1,200 students went through the Students in Transition program last year district-wide.

According to Crawford Herrera, Central Academy of Excellence, Benjamin Banneker Elementary and Pitcher Elementary all have higher than average numbers of students in transition.

"We ended the year at 307 kids, but 194 moved in and out during the school year," said Karol Howard, principal of Pitcher Elementary. "That's an incredible amount of kids that go in and out."

She said some of that came from evictions.

At Pitcher, there's a learning lab to help students in transition. Kids go there three times a week for a half hour to get them on grade level.

"We fill in the gaps as we go along, we accelerate where we can and we individualize instruction," Howard said. "And it's not just here in our learning lab. The teachers also have small group time."

Pitcher's students do well despite all the transitions. The school won awards from the district for improving math, science and reading scores. With support from the community and schools, periods of instability are something the district hopes all students can overcome.

Some of the students in the transition program enter through referrals from teachers and administrators.

Along with extra academic instruction, school counselors help students with their social and emotional needs.