By Susan Piazza, Assistant Director, Title I and School Support Team, WI Department of Public Instruction.
I recently had the honor of introducing a session at the National Title I Conference, hosted by the National Title I Association in Philadelphia, PA. The session was titled, “Voices of Youth: Education, Homelessness, Hope.” Amy Bradley, Director of Youth Leadership and Scholarships at SchoolHouse Connection, facilitated a panel of four young leaders (Liam, Gladys, Bernadette, and Sasha), as the four youth shared their personal stories.
These young adults exuberated courage and wisdom beyond their years. Listening to them open up about their homelessness and the impact it had on their education left me feeling emotionally jolted. Liam spoke proudly of how grateful he was for his high school assistant principal. He shared that this individual played a key role in creating a nurturing and caring school environment. Liam stated that he wasn’t even sure if the school staff knew he was experiencing homelessness. What he did know was that caring adults in his school helped to ensure that he received the appropriate supports and services that he needed. Systems were put in place to address and remove barriers due to homelessness, so that he could learn.
As I sat there listening, I was once again reminded of the truth behind the impact that school, district, and state level systems can have on the future of a child or youth experiencing homelessness. Liam’s story confirmed it. Amy Bradley, who has also served as a school district homeless liaison, reiterated the importance of school district homeless liaisons identifying children experiencing homelessness under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. She shared that this identification helps ensure that children experiencing homelessness, including unaccompanied homeless youth, receive the appropriate McKinney-Vento services that they qualify for. Gladys spoke to the importance of school personnel asking questions and paying attention to the signs that students experiencing homelessness may exhibit (like missing school or chronically coming to school late).
Gladys also enforced the importance of school staff demonstrating compassion and building rapport with students outside of just academics. This builds the necessary trust that students need in order to open up about their homelessness. She explained that just because a student comes to school late, or misses class, does not mean they don’t want to be there or don’t want their education.
Bernadette and Sasha’s testimonies were just as heartwarming. They shared the importance of confidentiality when providing McKinney-Vento services to youth experiencing homelessness. Families are filled with pride, and often feel embarrassed by their homeless status. Depending on factors such as culture and comfort with transparency, the approach a school takes in reaching out to families is critical to the family accepting McKinney-Vento services.
All four youth on the panel spoke to the importance of building relationships, developing trust, and embracing empathy. They shared that they were thankful for the support they had received from school staff. They asked for the audience to take the stories they had just heard back to their school districts and state agencies so that more adults are made aware of the positive impact educational systems have in educating children experiencing homelessness. I was emotionally moved by the depth of wisdom, resilience, and bravery demonstrated by the four youth; and thankful to have been there to hear their voices of truth.