Burlington student homelessness rate highlighted during board meeting

·4 min read

As many as 208 Burlington School District students were identified in 2021 as either homeless or experiencing housing insecurity issues, according to a presentation to the Burlington School Board on Monday.

That's about 6.5% of the district's student population.

During the meeting, the board heard from Cassie Gerst, supervisor of grants and community outreach for the district, and Jennifer Lehman, the district's "Resilient Communities" coordinator, on the progress of the district's "Resilient Communities" program.

The program is a five-year strategic planning project that provides grants that aim to promote resilience and protective factors for youth in certain communities.

In 2020, the district received a "Resilient Communities" grant. The district was one of 17 districts that were allowed to apply for the grant and one of four districts that were awarded the grant.

For the second year of the program, Gerst said the district chose to use the grant money to work to address homelessness in the area, as defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The federal law sets guidelines for how public schools engage with students experiencing housing insecurity and works to help schools provide assistance.

Gerst noted that, for students considered to be homeless under McKinney-Vento in the Burlington School District, a majority of those students were living in households with extended family, which could include grandparents or an aunt, and are in situations where, if they were asked to leave that household, they would be out on the streets.

In 2021, the program worked on establishing needs assessments, which were conducted through an online community survey to help establish areas of need. When that survey was completed, the three areas identified as those the program should focus on were resources connection, housing and awareness/outreach.

Lehman said the program now is working with various local agencies to help address the needs of home-insecure families in the area, including Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services of Southeast Iowa, Domestic Violence Intervention Program, Community Action of Southeast Iowa and Des Moines County Public Health.

Eight percent of district students considered to be homeless under McKinney-Vento participate in after-school and extracurricular activities, an initiative the district actively works to encourage, according to Gerst.

Anyone interested in contacting the district to see what services the district may be able to provide through the McKinney-Ventro Homeless Assistance Act can do so either by visiting the district's website or calling (319) 253-2707.

During the presentation, board president Joel Sieren noted that one student out of a classroom of 20 is likely to be experiencing some form of housing insecurity, according to the numbers presented during the presentation.

Superintendent Pat Coen noted that, on any given year, he has observed an estimated 120-130 district students who would be considered homeless by the standards of the McKinney-Vento law.

Coen also shared a personal story about a homeless student he mentored within recent years.

"I try to be in the schools and make personal relationships with kids," Coen said. "Little guy, homeless, a kindergartener. Out of control, (he) had a lot going on (in his home life). ... So this little cuss-head, I'm working him hard and he accomplished the teacher's goals."

Coen said that, as a reward for doing well in school, the student was invited to the central office for tacos and Coen learned the student had never carved a pumpkin before.

"I've raised four kids, we carved pumpkins every year and it was a big deal," Coen said. "So I bought in my dang rotary saw. And we're making the best, coolest Jack-o-lantern you ever laid your eyes on."

Coen said, after going to the house he was couch-surfing at after school, a family argument ensued and the student and their family had to leave.

Coen said he saw the student crying the next day.

"He said 'Mr. Coen, I had to leave my Jack-o-lantern! I had to run out of my house to be safe and leave my Jack-o-lantern!"

"So remember, she's not talking about numbers," Coen said to the board. "She's talking about children. She is not talking about numbers, she's talking about (over) 200 children."

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Burlington schools utilize Resilient Communities for homeless students