TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Homeless in the heartland–the stark reality is that Topeka Public Schools saw the number of homeless students skyrocket more than 33% in just two years. Now, about 400 Topeka students are without a permanent home.
Many of their families live with extended family or friends gracious enough to take them in. Others live at the Topeka Rescue Mission. KSNT News evening anchor Jared Broyles recently sat down with USD 501’s Dr. Tiffany Anderson ahead of a keynote speech she delivered this past weekend in Orlando, Florida.
Her district that covers much of Kansas’ capital city has a startling 77% of students in need of free or reduced school lunches. That number, Dr. Anderson says, is more likely to be closer to 80% when you consider that some parents are either too proud to ask for help or simply don’t fill out the necessary paperwork. It’s a significantly high number that reveals just how many families whose children attend Topeka Public Schools are fighting poverty.
Superintendent Anderson says that while it’s important for kids to come to school prepared to learn; it’s the district’s responsibility to remove any barriers first. So, this year, teachers in USD 501 aren’t waiting for families to come to the school when there’s a problem; they’re showing they care by going to the family first.
“If a student is absent for two days without parent contact we do a home visit,” Dr. Anderson explained. So, all of the schools are doing home visits. And in some schools, in one of our high needs schools, all of the teachers in that school are doing home visits, and that’s in one of our pre-schools, and when we do the home visits, we try to identify, what are the issues that you’re dealing with? Is it unemployment? Then we try to look for a job for that family.”
But what if the issue isn’t about employment? But rather domestic violence or another indirectly related issue? Anderson says they work with the parent(s)/family to find or provide necessary resources.
We talked on a Thursday, one day before she was set to take her place around a table with the U.S. Secretary of Education, John King, Jr. Dr. Anderson was prepared to talk about how TPS is addressing trauma that comes out of a constant state of poverty or homelessness. In fact, the Capital City’s largest district is readying to launch the “Trauma Boot Camp” to quickly and efficiently educate staff on how to handle and help struggling students. She also met along with two dozen other superintendents from across the country to talk about how to best educate students for the future.
Anderson then spent the weekend attending the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth’s NAEHCY Conference in Orlando. She took four high schoolers with her on the trip; but they weren’t just any kids. She asked school leaders for high-needs students; 2 were from her superintendent’s advisory council and another 2 have experienced poverty and/or trauma but are still remarkably high-performing in the classroom. They spent Saturday visiting colleges and Sunday they sat through Dr. Anderson’s keynote address and attended sessions alongside her. The four were tasked with taking notes, as their mentor fully intends for them to present their experience to adults back here at home.
“So, this is an opportunity for students who really are rising above the circumstances and situations in their own lives?” KSNT News’ Jared Broyles asked.
“Absolutely,” Dr. Anderson replied. “Some of the student’s I’ll be taking work because they really have to work to make sure that they meet certain ends. The other piece is that these are all seniors. These are seniors that are really planning what’s their next step in life. So, I’m excited to give them exposure and access to some other networks that they haven’t seen.”
The term “homeless” doesn’t necessarily mean that a student or family is literally out on the street. It simply means that they don’t have a permanent home. They may stay with relatives, a shelter, or hop from one temporary housing option to another—such as a low-end, inexpensive motel. Many are simply seeking to put a roof over their family’s heads—whatever that may be. With that in mind, Dr. Anderson says she’ll hold the district’s next monthly principal’s meeting at the Mission. She’s tapping the district’s top leadership to really look deeply at homelessness as well as trauma.
501’s superintendent pauses to ask: “What does trauma look like when you’re in a state of not knowing where your next meal will be or moving from place to place?” It’s a question she believes is her job to help answer. Dr. Anderson insisted that USD 501 must contribute collectively to improving the plight of students experiencing homelessness as well as the resulting trauma.
Our anchor started to ask if it’s the school system’s responsibility to intervene outside their doors and the school day, and why, but Dr. Anderson quickly interjected.
“Definitely! We have a responsibility to help those who live in the same community that we live in,” she said passionately.
Her long-term goal is to train the entire school district in the area of mental health.
“As schools we can’t say, ‘This isn’t my job.’ Everything that impacts a life is your job, whatever that is. Whether that comes in the form of a child, or it comes in the form of the adult supporting that child.”