Florida district takes innovative approach to reach homeless students

Homelessness arrives in waves to the Florida Keys as do cycles of hurricanes
By: | March 12, 2021
(AdobeStock/Roman Bodnarchuk)(AdobeStock/Roman Bodnarchuk)

One of the most photographed spots in America is in downtown Key West, Fla. A giant red-and-black maritime buoy dominates Whitehead Street and is painted with the message “Southernmost Point in the Continental United States.”

The Florida Keys are home to an endless stream of tourists, from famous authors to the homeless.

Finding and steering homeless children to the classroom falls to Beryl Morgan, an energetic-speaking head of Title I and federal grants programing for Florida’s Monroe County.

The physical layout of her county offers a challenge not found elsewhere. The Monroe County school district follows a 126-mile ribbon of roadway from Key Largo to Key West.

Within the district are 10 public schools, half of which fall under Title I, according to Morgan, plus six charter and five private schools.Implementing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 USC 11431 , for homeless students is an automatic policy, Morgan said.

“We send out a residency packet to families early in the school year. The packet contains a student questionnaire that helps us identify the status of the student,” she said, adding that staff members also have a supply of forms available when they sense a student fits a homeless condition.

A CHIPS in every school

“In every school we have a CHIPS contact,” which she promptly defined as Children’s Homeless Intervention Project for Students. In addition to having a CHIPS representative in every public school, Morgan said there is an additional CHIPS contact in the district’s Key West office with more universal duties, such as assisting with Spanish speakers.

“Our CHIPS contact informs families of all available resources, including food pantries,” she added. “A lot of people here work two jobs and don’t know what resources are available to them.”

Beyond the CHIPS representative, Morgan said each and every employee in the district’s system receives awareness training so as to provide assistance in identifying students in need.

“Then again, in January, we do a second push by distributing questionnaires to families,” she noted. The second round helps flush out any relevant data, specifically identifying those families who are recent arrivals.

Responding to COVID

Homelessness arrives in waves to the Florida Keys as do cycles of hurricanes. Such natural disasters have given the school district the capacity for delivering innovative responses.

“Since [Hurricane] Irma, we’ve had a few years of normal, and now … we’re in this pandemic,” she said. Morgan immediately highlighted a strategy she took to deal with community interaction during the present COVID-19 epidemic.

“Normally, in September we would conduct an event for new families with person-to-person contact at each of our Title I schools,” she said. “At the event we would give away packages containing information about the school as well as information on local resources.” The handouts specify the local CHIPS contact, student transportation availability, records transfer, meals, and tutoring. The packets also address special needs services, as well as sports, music, and other activities.

“However, the pandemic changed all that. So we reversed it. Instead, we held a drive-thru at each school,” she emphasized. Thus, families obtained the needed information thanks to a curbside drive-by.

During the pandemic, Morgan generated a CHIPS page on the district’s website, which serves as a guidepost for both staff and families. The webpage includes the district’s family engagement policy.

The website stresses that the county’s public schools adhere to ESSA guidelines and offer parents a readable format emphasizing the importance of family engagement, along with a phone number and name of a contact person. The website also offers easy to follow tips for parents along with a downloadable three-page policy for the county’s homeless children.

Roland Little covers Title I issues for LRP Publications.