Listening to learn

This week, along with a colleague and a Daytona State College student majoring in education, I facilitated a workshop for teachers and administrators. It was truly a workshop: we rolled up our sleeves and worked together to not only come up with ideas and solutions, but to begin to form a cadre to continue our efforts. And I learned much.

The topic was Unaccompanied, Unidentified: Helping homeless and unaccompanied students in our high school classrooms. One of the critical–and difficult–aspects of the workshop was the second word. Pam Woods and her staff are excellent at guiding schools in identifying, and serving, homeless and unaccompanied students. There’s no doubt Ms. Woods does her job of meeting the needs of these students in our schools, and in the communities. But. But. What about the unidentified students? If students are homeless and wish to stay hidden about that, how can we help them? What tools can we use, what measures put in place, to serve them without ferreting them out?

One activity, and frankly the difficult one for yours truly, was when we broke up into groups. The groups each got a case study I had written up, and brainstormed solutions and ideas for that student. Each one was a homeless student I’d known, a homeless VCS student (I had permission from each of them and changed their names and minor details of their situations.) What got to me was this: when I sat down to write the studies and had to pick from the dozens of homeless students I have known, personally, right here in VCS over the years.

A few of the quick facts we shared (courtesy of the District’s hard work), shocked many of the workshop participants. For example: Four percent–over 2,000–current VCS students are homeless or “unaccompanied” (which means, in lay terms, couch surfing without parents or guardians). That is a huge amount of IDENTIFIED students! Reason would dictate there are at least that many who don’t disclose. Another shocker was how misrepresentative the term “free and reduced lunch” is as an indicator of socio-economic status (SES). Although it is a professionally acceptable marker, it is very misleading unless disaggregated, which it really never is for training or information purposes. Here’s why I say that. Students can get reduced lunch if their family annual household income is well above the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). For example, FPL for a family of four for 2017 is $24,600 or below. A family can have an annual income of up to $44,954 and the children receive reduced lunch. See what I mean about misrepresentative as an SES indicator? One final, and very crucial, point I heard Pam Woods, herself, make in a workshop. It’s one we spent some time exploring this week: the biggest barrier to students being identified and served is the prejudices of school personnel.

That last point was poignantly, explicitly, and beautifully explored by my cofacilitator, the DSC student. She took us through her personal story as an unaccompaned youth at a local high school. She was open about sharing, and frank when answering questions. One of the most illuminating points happened organically. A former teacher of this student who was a workshop participant–in fact she taught the student for three of her four years of high school—seemed to feel she had failed this student in some way by not knowing of her situation. In fact, this was one of the student’s best teachers, ever. She didn’t know because the student didn’t want her to.  And we owe it to these students to try to understand why that might be. All of the workshop participants, including me, came to understand exactly why this student made the choices she did, and her presentation sparked a thorough and thoughtful exploration for creative solutions. We have a lot more work to do.  Some of the student’s points (and remember, this is one student’s perspective, but good advice for stakeholders to think about):

  • Parents may be abusive. They may be drug addicts. They may be bad parents. Don’t try to influence or impact the student’s desire to maintain a relationship, to love, their parents. Don’t judge, even if the child has been removed from the home or left on their own.
  • Gatekeepers of access to services should park their personal opinions and leave it to the professionals, the district Homeless Liaison and her staff, to handle the intake and follow-through with the student. It is hard enough to come forth–keep your remarks, eye-rolls, sighs, to yourself.
  • Don’t pump students for personal information. It is great to let students know you are there, that you will listen, and that you can get them help if they need it. But, just do that. Listen. Don’t advise. Teachers are masters of their subject area, not social workers or guidance counselors. Teachers are also safe adults, and adults students can disclose to. Listening is the key. And, again, parking your own opinions, questions, and judgments.
  •  Let ALL students know what services are available through the district and through your particular school at the beginning of the year, and don’t single students out. Letting all students know lets unidentified students know along with everyone else. Take the time to do this in every classroom.

I learned so much from this young woman who made the brave and difficult decision to speak for an hour and answer questions about her past, her present, and her future. One remark she made (and I’ve known her since she was sixteen, she’s nineteen now) punched me in the gut. In part of her remarks she shared that one of the reasons she had to leave home was that her parent left her alone at night a lot, and sometimes in the daytime, too: sometimes, for a week or more. She had no way to get to the store, to school. I had known about that when I helped her navigate the identification process at her high school. What I didn’t know was what she replied when a teacher in the workshop asked in the Q & A, “When you talked about your parent leaving you alone, off and on, before you became unaccompanied, how long did that go on?”

She quietly replied, “Since I was twelve.”

This was her normal. She didn’t know this was not normal until she left home at seventeen. Think about that. Wrap your mind around that. And roll up your sleeves in your school, your community.