This piece by Homeless Education Liaison Sue Lenahan is the first in a series of blog posts that, in five questions, captures some of the most pressing challenges, inspiring triumphs, and innovative strategies experienced and implemented by practitioners supporting students experiencing homelessness around the country.
Sue Lenahan is both a middle school counselor and a homeless education local school district liaison from Big Rapids Public Schools in central Michigan. She has served as a homeless liaison for approximately nine years, previously serving in Evart Public Schools, and currently shares her homeless liaison duties with high school counselor Julie Aldrich. Currently, there are 2,021 students enrolled in Big Rapids Public Schools. They attend one comprehensive high school, one alternative education virtual high school, one middle school, and two elementary schools. Within the school district, there are approximately 70 students who have been identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
How do you identify students experiencing homelessness who are chronically absent?
There is a part of me that wishes I could say that I regularly scan through attendance data and identify all of the students who are having absenteeism as a chronic problem, but what actually happens to identify chronically absent homeless students in our district is a little more complex than that. Several factors come into play in our support of all students, but it is the strong relationships between staff that are created and maintained that make things work. As a homeless liaison, it is imperative that I maintain close, supportive relationships not only with the students and their families, but also with the teachers, the office staff, the paraprofessionals, the school nurse, and the food service department. I may learn about a student’s attendance problems while reviewing data, but more than likely one of the teachers will contact me voicing their concern–or the attendance clerk will let me know of a student’s attendance so that I can make additional contact with the family. Or our food service department might reach out to me and let me know that a particular homeless student hasn’t eaten lunch for a number of days. It is definitely team work that makes all of this happen, but if I didn’t consciously nurture the relationships I have with the other members of this complex team, the support we offer the students would be much harder to accomplish.
In your experience, what are some of the most common causes of chronic absence for students experiencing homelessness?
Many homeless students are enmeshed in generational poverty. They don’t always know or have role models who have modeled what some researchers refer to as the “hidden rules of the middle class.” It’s easy for them to feel overwhelmed by something that may be no big deal for another student who has a solid living situation with working parents. For example, they may not have an alarm clock to wake them in the morning–or they often set an alarm and forget to turn it on. Sometimes the children are the only ones who have to get up and out of the house in the morning, and therefore may have to get ready for school on their own. Growing up in these circumstances can be daunting–leading to chronic absenteeism. Another common cause of chronic absence is a lack of transportation. If the student misses the school bus and the parent doesn’t have a working vehicle, the student just doesn’t come to school. A lack of transportation also keeps the parents from getting the kids to the clinic if they are sick, and then the kids miss more school due to being sick. It’s a vicious cycle.
What strategies do you use to enable consistent attendance? Do you leverage data in any way?
This is a tough one, but again I’m going to fall back on the need for positive relationships. If the student knows me, or has a strong relationship with a teacher, that relationship can work wonders. I will often reach out to parents via their cell phone – everyone has one! My approach is always one of concern and empathy. I do not call to penalize. I call to help. Life really is tough and it really is hard to fight the tough fight if you feel the deck is stacked against you. If the student is at home, I will conference with them over the phone, attempting to find out what the issues are, and how we can work through them. Once the student is back at school, I stay in close touch with him/her as well as with the teachers or other team members. I keep healthy snacks in my office. Kids are always hungry! A kind word and a handful of trail mix can work miracles!
I do use data when I work with the students–but I use it as a dialogue and goal-setting tool. We can cross-reference attendance data with grades in classes and see a direct correlation. ALL students want to get good grades — no matter if they act like it or not. We use the data to set goals and refer to data again when we reflect on goal-attainment. I’ve held “lunch bunch” groups that include homeless students with chronic absenteeism–they love that. Students love to have an invitation to a special place to have their lunch and share a little dialogue in a welcoming area that is much less chaotic than a school cafeteria. Having lunch with the counselor and a small group of students (between three to five) opens the door to talk about school, relationships, and future goals; to talk about who they are and what’s important to them. It gives them a reason to come to school. Again: relationships are essential.
Does your district implement any attendance programs or policies that support the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?
From day one, as federal law requires, we get the kids in school. We don’t wait for all of the paperwork–we get them in school. We have centralized enrollment in our district and the folks at the district office who enroll the students let me know right away if the student comes from a transitional living situation that may qualify as homeless.
Additionally, our attendance clerk will always check with me if she knows of a homeless family that is about to be referred to our truancy officer, and will defer to my judgement as to whether or not a referral to truancy is the appropriate next step. This happened just last week, actually. I was able to have a lengthy conversation with the mother over the phone. Her kids had been ill, she was ill, and they were dealing with head lice on top of it. I was able to talk with her long enough to gain her trust by simply listening with empathy–while also being honest with her about the possibility of truancy repercussions. The kids were in school the next day, and the mother and children were able to meet with our school nurse and gain some assistance for the lice issues, as well as advice on visiting the clinic.
Recognizing that there’s no silver bullet, what is your “top tip” for supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?
You may have already guessed what my top tip might be: supportive relationships! This is simply essential. Get to know the kids and their families. Get to know the teachers, office staff, all of the other folks who make this educational merry-go-round continue to function. Have compassion and work from a place of empathy. Seek first to understand! Follow the Golden Rule! Be nice! Operate under the umbrella of Dignity and Respect.
The person designated as a homeless liaison in a school district usually has that duty added on to an already full-time job. Supporting all homeless students and families is not something that can be accomplished in isolation. Everyone matters.