I-TEAM | What’s the impact of homeless kids not getting equal access to education?

Published: Sep. 15, 2022 at 6:22 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - While investigating the basic needs of homeless students in Richmond County schools going unfulfilled, the I-TEAM took a closer look at the person in charge of this growing segment of the student body.

Needs such as transportation and other special services that are mandated to be free and easy to access under federal law.

As we first reported last month, there was even more confusion at the start of the school year because the homeless liaison was missing from her post, with her emails saying she was out of the office.

The I-TEAM obtained her file showing missing certifications - for years. We talked with a family dealing with the real-life consequences of homeless students not getting equal access to education.

Some mornings are more overwhelming than others. We visit Alyssa outside on the latter. “Every day is a bad day… I am sick of this.”

Sick of trying to find a place to call home. Sick, fighting for her mental health while living in a motel.

“I can’t leave this situation because I have no credit, and my credit is shot.” Cries Alyssa.

She’s also sick of juggling bus and taxi rides to school for her four children.

“The cab comes at the same time as I am trying to get my other child on the bus, and I thought I had help getting her on the bus today and I didn’t, so she missed school.”

She’s sick of trying to get help from the people paid to help families like hers.

“There’s nothing in transition about this. There’s no help here. There’s no nothing.”

Her 11-year-old daughter Patience missed her bus the morning we visited while her mom was still in the cab with her brother. Her 13-year-old son Tony is nonverbal. Alyssa must ride with him to school every morning.

“You knew last year that there was a problem with the bus system. You knew last year there was a problem with homelessness and kids missing school and you losing children and all that. You know last year, as soon as the pandemic hit, it went to hell.”

Alyssa fell behind in rent and then lost the place they called home in July.

Her children are four of more than 400 students the Richmond County School District has identified as homeless so far this school year.

The federal government sent money down the pipeline to school districts across the country to ensure every student had access to free public education during the pandemic.

Extra money to Title I districts like Richmond County where many of the students are black, live in poverty, and receive special education services.

Over the last two years, the government has awarded the Richmond County School District $186 million in additional federal funds to bridge the gap.

With $32 million to specifically help homeless kids with transportation, counseling, and housing.

We found another $47 million to help Title I students. Kids like Tony, who are homeless, and receiving special education services.

Federal law requires school districts receiving Title I funds to designate an appropriate staff person as the McKinney Vento homeless liaison. The “liaison is the heart of the homeless education.”

The liaison identifies homeless students and their needs, connecting them with services that are crucial for success. But the I-TEAM reported Richmond County’s homeless liaison went missing at the start of the school year.

We now know she was at work becoming a state-certified social on Aug. 10, a week after the first day of school this year.

The I-TEAM requested her personnel file twice from the district. We received it only after sending them this email. The district hired her in 2018 with a note attached to her file “certification- need to apply.”

At the bottom of her new hire checklist: “offers of employment are contingent upon …receipt and approval of required documents.”

“A valid professional service certificate in school social work” is a requirement for the position.

In her evaluation after her first year- the certified employee box is checked “yes.”

However, the I-TEAM uncovered she did not receive it until nearly three years and a slew of I-TEAM investigations about homeless students in Richmond County not receiving services as required under federal law.

“I mean, the situation with the cab worked out with whoever put the order in for the cabs that are obviously is not getting down, or I wouldn’t be in this situation still two weeks later after,” Alyssa said as she shared her real-life consequences of the homeless liaison being out of office as the school year began.

Or perhaps, not if the Richmond County School District set more money aside to help people like her. In addition to all the extra pandemic money the federal government sent to the district, federal law mandates districts set aside a portion of Title I funds to help homeless students with things like transportation and tutoring.

The I-TEAM found the average set aside amount in Georgia is $14,000 a year. Richmond County’s set aside amount is one thousand dollars. Hancock County, a much smaller county with a high number of Title I students-sets aside seven times the amount of money a year.”

“If I feel a little hopeless at times it doesn’t mean I am going to stop going because I don’t have a choice, I have an autistic child who loves beyond life if it wasn’t for me where would he be?”

Overwhelmed, and underserved, but won’t stop fighting for all of her children.

Richmond County Schools sent us a statement when we pressed about these missing credentials as noted in their file for the homeless liaison.

“The Georgia Department of Education requires homeless liaisons to complete annual professional learning. The State does not require liaisons to be social workers or to hold any licenses or certifications. Our homeless liaison is in full compliance and exceeds all requirements set forth by the State to do the job. Any effort to discredit or slander an employee with a track record of caring for our students and families is shameful.”