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Cashawn Hightower, now 23, stands in front of school in the Harrison County School District, where she works as a counselor. Hightower credits the district for getting her back on her feet when she was homeless, pregnant and in high school. Credit: Della Hasselle

Cashawn Hightower was at the end of her rope.

Her mother’s battles with depression and drug use had ripped her family apart. Failing grades and truancy threatened to keep her from graduating high school. At 17, she was five months pregnant, and could see no future without her diploma. More than anything, she wanted to go to nursing school so she could offer her son a better life than the one she had growing up.

“I didn’t want to be no failure,” Hightower said. “I wanted him to see that no matter what you go through, you can always make it out of something.”

Back then, Hightower was also homeless. Since seventh grade, she had bounced around Harrison County on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, living in shelters or with friends when home was too unstable. For Hightower, like thousands of other youth in towns scattered along the highway bordering industrialized beaches, homelessness made getting basic materials for survival complicated. Academic success looked completely untenable.

But just months before the end of her senior year, Hightower got a lifeline. She was introduced to Clemon Jimerson, a specialist hired by the Harrison County School District to help homeless students. Jimerson and a staff of tutors arranged for her to take the classes she would need to graduate, and made sure she received a free lunch, school supplies and other basic necessities.

The extra assistance set her on a much less rocky path. “They said, we’re not here to judge you, we’re here to help you,” recalled Hightower, now 23.

“If all districts understood McKinney-Vento it would be easier. We try to understand what it truly is like to be homeless person. To put yourself in that situation.”

The district was able to dedicate resources to Hightower largely because of a federal grant under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, signed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan. The law, now marking its 30-year anniversary, requires schools to provide “protections and services” for homeless students by removing such barriers to enrollment as a lack of transportation, missing medical records or proof of residency.

Related: Mississippi tops rankings as ‘highest priority state’ in rural education’

Unfortunately, data show Hightower’s success is a rarity among homeless students, many of whom never receive the help they qualify for under the law. That’s true all over the country, but particularly on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. For decades, McKinney-Vento has been criticized as ineffective, with researchers reporting that the law has not been rigorously implemented.

On the federal level, funding is the biggest stumbling block to implementing the program well; state officials nationwide report there isn’t enough grant money to go around. But at the local level, the problem is often lack of information: School districts are frequently unaware of the extra support that can be provided through McKinney-Vento. Many pupils are never made aware they have a right to help. And many never report they are homeless, fearing the stigma that comes with that designation.

Fran Brown, a case worker at Rebekah’s House, a temporary shelter for families operated by the Ocean Springs-Long Beach Interfaith Hospitality Network, helps 11-year-old D.J. with the shelter’s computer. Brown mentors D.J., who became homeless after his mother was the victim of domestic abuse. Credit: Della Hasselle

With that in mind, school leaders in the state say Hightower’s story — and the district’s response — serve as an important lesson in how educators can effectively use McKinney-Vento to help some of the most vulnerable students. Unfortunately, few districts dedicate efforts to securing the federal aid. Currently, Harrison County is the only school district on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, and just one of a handful south of Jackson, to receive McKinney-Vento funds.

“If all districts understood McKinney-Vento it would be easier,” said Laretta Marks, director of student services for the district. Officials have been successful at getting the money through the competitive grant process, she said, because they show it can produce results. “We try to understand what it truly is like to be homeless person. To put yourself in that situation.”

Reforming services for homeless students is particularly urgent in Mississippi, where outcomes for these students have in recent years been bleaker than almost anywhere else in the country. A 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research and the National Center on Family Homelessness ranked Mississippi 49th out of the 50 states in identifying and serving homeless children.

Federal response, slow progress

Some concerns about McKinney-Vento were addressed under major reforms enacted under President Barack Obama in 2015. Districts are now required to increase outreach efforts to identify homeless students, provide “comprehensive education” by coordinating with social service agencies, give “specialized instructional support” to qualifying pupils, and keep track, separately, of graduation rates and other data on homeless kids.

But progress has been slow in southern Mississippi and beyond.

25 percent — School districts nationally that received federal dollars in 2014-15 for services to homeless students through McKinney-Vento grants, the largest source of such funding. In Mississippi, about 9.6 percent of districts received McKinney-Vento grants.

According to officials with the Mississippi Department of Education, funding remains one of the biggest challenges. Last fall, Mississippi received only $723,250 in McKinney-Vento grants for more than 7,750 homeless students in all districts served — less than $100 per child.

Another problem is training. The McKinney-Vento Act requires district liaisons to be trained on how to identify homeless students; it fails to extend that requirement to teachers. This is a major roadblock to reform, according to Earl J. Edwards, a former homeless student who is now in graduate school at the University of California. In an editorial for Education Weekly, he said reforms are “in vain” if “key stakeholders continue to be in the dark.”

This seems especially true in Mississippi. A 2017 report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness ranked Mississippi last in identifying homeless students.

The report also noted major shortcomings in federal funding. From 2010 to 2014, the organization found the number of homeless students in pre-K through 12th grade rose 19 percent, to just under 1.3 million nationwide. Over the same period, funding for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program declined from $65.3 million to $65 million, resulting in a significant decrease of per-pupil funding.

Related: Report finds ‘significant’ decreases in state’s achievement gap

The stakes couldn’t be higher. In 2014, the America’s Promise Alliance released a report written by researchers at Civic Enterprises that said homeless children and teenagers are 87 percent more likely to drop out of high school than non-homeless students. Failure to graduate contributes to a cycle of homelessness: Children who drop out due to lack of stable housing are more likely than others to become homeless as adults.

Magdelena Holland holds up a photograph of her adopted daughter, Nora, who was once homeless and failing school. Holland reported last spring that, thanks to these interventions, Nora was slated to graduate high school with honors. Credit: Della Hasselle

Compared to other students living in poverty, homeless youth also tend to experience higher levels of physical trauma, ill health, cognitive delays and mental disorders than those who live in more stable housing.

The authors of a 2014 article called “Staying in School: The Efficacy of the McKinney-Vento Act for Homeless Youth” were blunt about how the federal government and school districts together failed to help break this cycle of trauma: “It seems that the system is failing to meet the needs of homeless students to such a degree that failing to graduate becomes the normative outcome for homeless students.”

Using McKinney-Vento funds

Hightower still remembers the year things started to spiral. She was 13, and her mother’s parents had died. Her mom “just kind of lost it,” she said.

Without a stable home, she bounced around between schools. Her teachers hardly had a chance to help her improve her schoolwork. At one point in middle school, she was held back a grade.

Hightower kept her living situation secret from her classmates and teachers, exacerbating her academic problems. It wasn’t just the stigma that made her afraid to ask for help. When she had been honest about not having a home, she and her sisters had been taken away from their mother, whose neglect eventually led to termination of her parental rights.

But at age 17, thinking of a future for her unborn son, Hightower approached officials at the school district. She explained the extenuating circumstances that led to her flagging grades.

“You can’t study if you’re sick. You can’t do well if you’re scared to death. And you can’t study if you’re up all night with nightmares. But this is how you break the cycle. You have to get an education.”

Officials with the Harrison County School District said that once Hightower was identified as a “McKinney-Vento” student, they knew what supports would help her physically and psychologically and, in turn, help her academically.

Last year, the district received about $87,995 in McKinney-Vento funds to assist about 1,400 students in its 22 schools and centers. According to Marks, the director of student services, the district spends 90 percent of those funds on tutoring youth like Hightower, employing nine staff members three to four days a week specifically for the purpose. The remaining funds are spent on the liaison salary, school supplies and other outreach efforts, she said.

As part of the outreach, teachers are trained to look for signs of homelessness or instability at home. Children often provide clues inadvertently, wearing dirty clothing, for example, or coming to school ravenous. At the beginning of every year, teachers and counselors tour impoverished neighborhoods and makeshift camps, often located near backwoods, to gain a better understanding of what it means to be poor, and possibly homeless, in Mississippi.

“Our job is to take care of the whole child, to make sure that they know we care,” said Cindy Cook, a social worker at Three Rivers Elementary, one of the schools overseen by the district. “We want to make sure that child has some sense of normalcy.”

The results paid off, officials said. When an intervention specialist position was created in 2007, the district’s graduation rate was about 68 percent. In the school year starting in 2015, it had jumped to 81.2 percent. Last year, Marks said, homeless students who had received tutoring scored up to 2.6 points higher than the district average on state assessments.

Grants hard to get, but few Mississippi districts apply

McKinney-Vento grants are the largest source of federal dollars for services to homeless students, but few districts actually get them. Nearly 25 percent of districts nationally received the grants in 2014-15. In Mississippi, the number was closer to 9.6 percent.

So few districts get the grants, which are doled out by the states, in part because funding is competitive, said Christina Endres, a program specialist with the National Center for Homeless Education.

In Mississippi, few districts even tried to get McKinney-Vento funds last school year. A total of 23 of the state’s 148 school districts applied, and 16 got the grants. The year before, 15 of the 16 districts that applied received the grants.

26,108 — Number of Mississippi children identified as homeless in a 2013 study on homelessness by the National Center on Family Homelessness. The rate reflected an increase of 26 percent over the previous two years.

State officials point out that districts don’t use McKinney-Vento funds in isolation. Title I funds, specifically earmarked for low-income families, can also be used to provide services to homeless students.

According to data provided to The Hechinger Report, every school district along the state’s Gulf Coast received Title I funds last year, in amounts ranging from $777,877 to $4.7 million. Only a portion of those funds, however, was set aside specifically for homeless students.

Some district officials said they don’t need McKinney-Vento funds — the districts are small, eliminating transportation as an issue, and tutoring programs are already in place. It’s unclear what other Gulf Coast districts are doing for their homeless populations. Five of the eight districts contacted for this story did not respond to questions about how federal funding was used to help these children.

Bleaker in Mississippi

Although Mississippi has a lower percentage of homeless students than most states, the latest data available shows numbers are rising steadily — as they are nationally.

In the 2014-15 school year, about 2.1 percent of the state’s students were homeless, compared to a national average of 2.5 percent. These figures may be lower than the actual percentage of homelessness: Across the country, underreporting is rampant.

In 2013, the National Center on Family Homelessness found there were 26,108 Mississippi children identified as homeless, marking a 26.6 percent increase from two years prior.

Some of the increase may be due to improved reporting, but researchers say “there is good reason to believe” that at least part of the increase reflects real growth in the population of homeless students.

19 percent — Increase from 2010 to 2014 in the number of homeless students in pre-K through 12th grade. Over the same period, funding for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program declined from $65.3 million to $65 million, resulting in a significant decrease of per-pupil funding.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, students are identified as homeless if they lack a fixed or “adequate” nighttime residence. That means students may be temporarily “doubled up” with other families or sharing housing. They may also be living in hotels or motels, shelters or unsheltered situations, like cars, beaches or abandoned buildings.

Related: Chronic absences, poverty impacting outcomes for Mississippi’s children, report says

In Mississippi, 93 percent of the students found to be homeless were doubling up, and just 1 percent were unsheltered altogether. While living with friends or extended family can be safer for children than living without shelter, experts say the arrangement also makes it more difficult to detect homelessness. Students who are unwilling to be singled out often create a barrier to receiving outreach, by keeping their status to themselves.

Without support, those students are more likely to fall behind in school.

“All these issues are interconnected,” said John McGah, a senior associate with the non-profit American Institutes for Research.

Filling in the gaps

Schools are not the only sources of help for homeless students. Leaders of several local nonprofits are trying to fill in the gaps, identifying homeless students and providing services where school districts can’t.

A statue of an angel sits in front of The Nourishing Place, a
nonprofit in Gulfport that’s among scores of organizations helping
homeless families with clothing, food, after-school tutoring and other
services. Credit: Della Hasselle

Among these leaders is Fran Brown. She’s a case worker at Rebekah’s House, a temporary shelter for families operated by the Ocean Springs-Long Beach Interfaith Hospitality Network.

In January, Brown met 11-year-old D.J. at the shelter. He had become homeless along with his three siblings when his mother was injured in a domestic assault. D.J. asked that his full name not be used.

Although schools are supposed to provide transportation to homeless students under McKinney-Vento, for months Brown has picked up D.J. from his school in Biloxi. She sometimes tutors him after school and she makes sure his family has services they need.

“We just do what we can,” Brown said.

Related: When foster kids are moved around, schooling becomes an afterthought

The nonprofit Coastal Family Health provides medical care for homeless families, sometimes going into schools to find students who need care.

Supplies for children who have been victims of abuse and neglect are often donated by Resilience of Coastal Kids (ROCK) Foundation. Many of the children served by ROCK and its team of volunteers have experienced homelessness, and workers have seen the educational repercussions up close.

1.3 million — Approximate number of homeless students in the United States in 2015.

Nora, who was adopted by ROCK’s director, Magdelena Holland, when she was 13, experienced these repercussions first-hand. Nora met Holland when she and her sister lived in a shelter; before that, the two lived for years in a home without reliable electricity or gas. Despite her own trauma, Nora looked after her sibling, changing her diapers, keeping her clean and feeding her. At one point, the two girls were so hungry they ate dog food. At school, Nora was failing every subject.

Four years later, after living in a stable home and receiving tutoring, Nora graduated from her high school in Long Beach, Mississippi with honors.

“You can’t study if you’re sick. You can’t do well if you’re scared to death. And you can’t study if you’re up all night with nightmares,” Holland said. “But this is how you break the cycle. You have to get an education.”

Hightower agrees. The help she received made a huge difference in her life: She now has a stable home for her son, is married and plans to start nursing school in the fall.

Three years ago, Hightower opened her own home to her younger sister, who was a freshman in high school. She now acts as her sister’s guardian. She gets her to school every day and helps with homework. Hightower says without this help, her sister would be homeless.

But Hightower says intervention from the Harrison County School District, where she now works part-time as a counselor, continues to make a world of difference in the family’s life. The district provides her sister with supplies, tutoring and overall emotional and academic support when it’s needed most.

“They’re amazing,” Hightower said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter

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