Five Questions with Catherine Knowles, Homeless Education Program Coordinator

This piece by Homeless Education Program Coordinator Catherine Knowles is the second 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.

Catherine Knowles is the Homeless Education Program Coordinator with Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves the city of Nashville, Tennessee and Davidson County. More than 82,000 students are currently enrolled in the district’s 73 elementary schools, 33 middle schools, 25 high schools, 18 charter schools, and eight specialty schools. Over 3,400 of those students have been identified as experiencing homelessness. Catherine has served in this role for 22 years, and also participates in many community working groups related to homeless issues. She is a member of both the local Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care Planning Council and Nashville’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project Steering Committee. Says Catherine, “I love that no day is ever the same.” 

What is one of the most helpful strategies you have learned in a homelessness-related training? 

I’ve been through lots of trainings, but I’d say the most helpful tip I have picked up along the way is the importance of offering professional development (PD) to school and community partners often, and in both large and small doses. For years, I employed a traditional PD model and held annual one-and-a-half-hour training sessions for my school building contacts, as well as school social workers and counselors. Although this approach fulfilled the compliance portion of training school staff, it rarely had the real impact I was looking for–which was to create understanding, compassion, empathy and “buy-in” in the importance of my work. As a homeless liaison, I need school staff and community partners to fulfill their required responsibilities to serve students experiencing homelessness–but in order for our district to fully meet the needs of our students and families, I also need these partners to want to be part of the solution, or to at least acknowledge the valuable role they can play in connecting families to services. 

Resource: Back-to-School Training Resources

Accordingly, we have created a variety of professional development offerings ranging from a ten-minute McKinney-Vento 101 prerecorded PowerPoint to a 90-minute, in-person training more heavily focused on the social and emotional aspects of homelessness. Because our target audiences are so varied and school staff is so pressed for time, we also send out targeted emails with brief handouts and two-minute video clips, and we take advantage of every opportunity to speak casually with the building staff with whom we need to connect to better serve our students. We realize that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and we can have a significant impact through our informal interactions with staff and the community.

What is your most successful community partnership?

This seems a lot like asking a parent which child is the favorite…We have more than 25 community partners that support our work and our families in a variety of ways and we could not do the work we do without any one of them. Each partnership fulfills a vital need for the families that we serve and I consider all of them to be successful–but as I think about the newest partnerships and our most recent successes, I tend to highlight our partnership with Purposity because it is a great example of community members responding directly to the needs of their neighbors. We launched with Purposity in January 2018. At the time, Purposity was a text messaging service (now it is an app) that allowed individuals to sign up for a weekly text listing the needs of students and families experiencing homelessness. The response was OVERWHELMING! We quickly jumped from 250 to 500 community users, and we reached 1,000 users within the first year. This partnership enables us to assist families with brand new household items or bedding once they get housing of their own, or personal items that might otherwise take weeks to locate. For me, the partnership is such a great success story because it is about neighbors helping neighbors in need, as opposed to grant funds filling those gaps. The power of Purposity is the ability to connect generous donors with the real and immediate needs of others in our community.

One Purposity request that really generated a huge response from the community was a posting of needs for a high school senior who was experiencing homelessness and camping outdoors with his uncle in February. They had been in a local hotel for several years, but had to leave there when the uncle’s health declined and limited his ability to work. They could not go to any of the family shelters because the student was over 18, and neither the student nor the uncle felt comfortable at the adult shelter–so they camped and retreated to a relative’s home when weather was severe. Through our generous Purposity donors, they received sleeping bags, a cooler, campfire cookware, boots, jeans, coats, and other supplies needed for camping out in the elements.

Can you give us some examples of how you use data at the school district level to better serve students experiencing homelessness?

After 21 years of begging for more staff, I used data as a justification to add an additional full-time employee to our team this year! At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, we took a hard look at our data. Our rate of chronic absenteeism among students experiencing homeless was continuing to climb, and was more than double the rate for our housed students. Transportation is the most commonly cited barrier to regular attendance. With this information, I made a case for the need to hire one staff person to oversee transportation arrangements for our McKinney-Vento students, since we provide transportation to nearly 30% of our McKinney-Vento students to keep them stable in their “school of origin” (the school they attended when they were permanently housed, or the school in which they were last enrolled). We were thrilled to see a 7.2% decrease in chronic absenteeism among our McKinney-Vento students at the end of this year, and the district has committed to funding a part-time position in the Transportation Department so that we can work together to continue reducing absences related to transportation.

What do you consider your biggest barrier to helping homeless students?

From my perspective from the portable building that serves as my office at the Board of Education in the “It” city of Nashville, the biggest barrier to serving students and families experiencing homelessness is the current lack of affordable housing options in our community—and, relatedly, the difference between the HUD and McKinnney-Vento definitions of homelessness. For many years, I had a laser-like focus to my work and looked only at the educational component of the struggle my families faced, but I ultimately realized that I was not serving my students and their families well with such a narrow focus. Access to a free and appropriate education–along with school stability and services to promote school success–will always be the primary focus on my work, but I also recognize the importance of the educational system working alongside all the other systems of care that impact our students and families. 

As a native Nashvillian, many parts of the city are unrecognizable to me—long gone are the affordable rentals and modest family homes that provided stable places to raise children. They have been torn down and replaced by tall skinnies with roof-top patios and often serve as weekend rentals to bachelorette parties or country music fans. I am not opposed to growth and prosperity, but I do think that in Nashville, it has come with a cost. To me, the cost seems to be hitting our most vulnerable families the hardest as they are pushed out of our community because they can no longer afford to live in the place they once called home. 

Each year, about 80% of the students I serve are doubled-up–and therefore not eligible for HUD homeless services. As our community works to fully implement our Coordinated Entry System (CES), the gap between these definitions is problematic and confusing to families.  The strict HUD definition used by CES leaves the majority of my families outside of that system, and they become frustrated by that. It is hard for families facing a housing crisis to be told that they are not the “right kind of homeless” and cannot receive assistance from a program promoted as the entry point for homeless services.

I believe education leads to opportunity, and that opportunity is the best path out of poverty and homelessness. I speak that message to school staff, to the community, and to my students and families. It is this belief that guides my work and has kept me in the field for more than twenty years—it is also this belief that takes a hit and shakes a bit every time I talk with another family that has to seek education and opportunity someplace else because their community no longer has a place for them.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments as a McKinney-Vento liaison?

Without a doubt, the greatest sense of accomplishment I have felt comes from the state policy work I have participated in over the past two years. With the guidance and expertise of Patricia Julianelle, SchoolHouse Connection’s Director of Programs Advancement and Legal Affairs, we convened a community work group in November 2017 and had two successful pieces of legislation in the past two years. In 2018, the bill that passed allowed homeless unaccompanied youth to obtain birth certificates and state IDs without parental signatures. The bill that passed this spring requires all postsecondary institutions in the state to designate a specific point of contact for students experiencing homelessness. This state policy work will have an immediate and long-lasting effect on students experiencing homelessness throughout the state and it serves as a prime example of the tremendous impact homeless liaisons can have if we dare to work beyond the school walls. 

Five Questions with Sue Lenahan: Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

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.