Poverty takes its toll on Kansas schools

Homelessness and mental illness are growing problems among students

1 | Children, Legislature, Social Determinants of Health

Saundra Shirley, a teacher at USD 501's classroom at the Topeka Rescue Mission, works with Mar'Vontae' Johnson, whose family has been living at the shelter for several weeks. Kansas school officials say the problems of poverty are a major concern in districts across the state.

Saundra Shirley, a teacher at USD 501's classroom at the Topeka Rescue Mission, works with Mar'Vontae' Johnson, whose family has been living at the shelter for several weeks. Kansas school officials say the problems of poverty are a major concern in districts across the state.

— In the state that has proudly called itself the nation’s breadbasket, the problems of poverty — including hunger, homelessness and mental illness — reach farther into classrooms than many Kansans might expect or care to believe.

In hundreds of public schools across the state, there are students that each Friday — or before holidays — are sent home with “backpacks” or “kits” of donated food put together by volunteers to be sure the children will have something to eat until they return to class the next school day.

That happens in Johnson County in suburban Shawnee Mission, which many would consider a rich school district, but also at schools as varied as Lincoln Elementary in Sumner County, the top wheat-producing area in a top wheat-producing state, and in Natoma, a burg of only 329 people in Osborne County. At least 175 students get the backpacks in Newton, the hometown of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which will spend considerable time this legislative session studying the issue of state school spending, including the arcane financing formula for “at-risk weighting” that helps districts with disproportionately high numbers of students from low-income homes.

The food initiatives often are loosely organized with the schools by private charities or civic groups such as the PTA or Rotary.

The biggest “backpack” distribution programs are run by the state’s major food charities, which keep close counts of the number of children they help.

For example, Harvesters, which serves people in 26 counties in northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri, currently has 19,580 schoolchildren on its food kit lists. The Kansas Food Bank, which is based in Wichita and serves people in 86 of the state’s 105 counties, has almost 7,000 students on its backpack list, including about 1,300 in Wichita.

‘Hunger is in every county’

Brian Walker, president of the Kansas Food Bank, said his organization’s program was quietly launched about nine years ago without trying to “sell it” to the schools “because we didn’t want to overpromise and not be able to deliver.”

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Courtesy Kansas Food Bank

Volunteers at the Kansas Food Bank prepare "backpacks" for students to take home for the weekend.

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It has since grown steadily every year, he said, mostly as other schools learn of the program and contact the food bank.

“We know hunger is in every county, in every community,” said Ellen Feldhausen, a spokesperson for Harvesters. “The percentages vary from county to county.”

Feeding America, an anti-hunger group, has developed an interactive online map that shows the numbers, county by county, across Kansas and the U.S. of how many people are considered “food insecure” because they are poor.

The map was built using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to Feeding America, more than 433,000 Kansans, or about 16 percent of the state’s population, live in households that are “food insecure.” More than half of the 433,000 are in households that earn so little — less than 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines — that they could qualify for the federal food stamp program.

“I think people don’t want to believe the statistics,” Feldhausen said. “Yet if you speak with teachers … it’s not a surprise to them. They see children coming to school hungry. They see children in the lunchroom hoarding food because they want to take it home for a little brother or sister. There are a number of heartbreaking behaviors they observe. It’s a very common situation in the schools. But when you’re just talking with people generally, I think that figure is really surprising to them.”

Free lunch

For the 2014 school year, according to a report from the Kansas State Department of Education, slightly more than 40 percent of Kansas school students will get free lunches because their families had annual earnings less than 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which is $30,615 for a family of four.

Audit Report

In November 2006, legislative auditors reported on their review of the cases of 500 “free-lunch” students, finding that 85 of them, 17 percent, weren’t actually eligible for the meals because their parents had under-reported their income, which school districts lacked the tools to verify. But since then, according to legislative researchers, steps have been taken to significantly reduce illegitimate approvals.

Only three of the state’s 286 school districts reported free-lunch percentages in the single digits: Fort Leavenworth, the Blue Valley district in Johnson County and the Andover district, which serves one of the wealthier Wichita suburbs.

Wichita’s USD 259, the state’s largest district, also had the highest percentage of students eligible for free lunch: 68.57 percent.

Southeast Kansas, long known as the state’s poorest region, also has districts with relatively high percentages of students lunching for free. But the high rate of subsidized meals is by no means limited to certain counties or regions of the state.

For example, more than 64 percent of students in the tiny Deerfield district in Kearny County qualified for free lunch.

The Satanta district, which has a relatively strong tax base because it sits atop part of the Hugoton Gas Field and so by some Statehouse reckonings is considered a “rich” district, has 55 percent of its students eligible for free lunch because of their families’ low earnings.

“We’re a farming community, and we have three of the largest feedlots in a five-state region in our county,” said school Superintendent Ardith Dunn, a lifelong resident of Haskell County. “Our labor is basically Hispanic and so those are the children that populate our schools. A lot of our children are from low-income families with parents working in manual-labor type situations.”

Telling legislators

Earlier this month, superintendents from six of the state’s largest school districts appeared together before a joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees as legislators began their recent crash courses on school finance.

Each cited poverty as a major concern for their schools.

Wichita Superintendent John Allison said many poor students in his district will change schools within the district two or three times over the course of the year as their parents chase after affordable housing.

“When we see a free-month-rent promotion” at some apartment complex, he said, “we know we’re going to see changes, because the parents are at that point financially.”

Bleak outlook

"You can look at our workforce right now and you can really divide it into three groups: Those without a high school education, high school only, and college. And we've got three very different phenomena going on in each of those three groups. Those educated college and above are doing pretty well. The high school-only eduction people are just holding their own, watching their wages grow at about the rate of inflation so the quality of their life hasn’t improved. But that bottom third - the group without the high school education - life is rough for them and it does not show any real signs of getting better anytime in the future."

-Kirk McClure, a University of Kansas professor of Urban Planning who has studied poverty in Kansas.

Jim Hinson, Shawnee Mission’s superintendent, said he was relatively new to the district but had been surprised after he arrived to find that “we have school nurses who are the primary health care providers” for many poor students.

“Right now, I can’t hire enough social workers” because of “what’s going on or not going on in homes,” he said. “One of our kindergarteners watched her mother commit suicide in front of her.”

Garden City Superintendent Rick Atha told the lawmakers that when he was forced to close schools earlier this year because of the polar blast blizzards, he had calls from parents complaining.

“I got calls to have school tomorrow,” he said, “because they know their kids would get breakfast and lunch.”

Topeka Superintendent Julie Ford told the lawmakers about the hundreds of homeless students in her district and the growing problem of mental illness.

“We can’t just keep doing these little tactical changes like we’ve been doing the last 10 to 15 years … and we need to have a serious discussion about mental health,” she said.

No one can say for sure how many Kansas students, or their parents, are coping with mental illness or substance abuse. The state education department doesn’t track those numbers. But Ford isn’t the only school official who says that problem is growing.

‘Dire straits’

Rosanne Haberman oversees the Topeka school district’s counselors and its programs for homeless students.

As of March 13, she said, she knew of 516 homeless students in the district, though the number fluctuates over the course of the year. Federal law requires every district to have a “homeless liaison” and to report the number of homeless students, so that is part of Haberman’s job.

The count of homeless kids enrolled in USD 501 schools has ranged as high as 699 over the past four years. The district gets about $60,000 a year in federal grant dollars to help them.

Haberman said she uses the money to buy the children school supplies, textbooks, eyeglasses and, in fewer instances, shoes.

Another grant, not specifically intended for homeless problems, has helped the district staff a special, after-school classroom at the Topeka Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter.

Haberman said when that grant “dies and goes away, we’ll really be in dire straits because we’ll have trouble supporting our lead teacher at the Rescue Mission and our tutors we’re paying now will go away.”

‘Tragically in life’

Jeannie Jackson, a married mother of two school-age children, has been living at the Rescue Mission with her family for several weeks. Her son and daughter use the classroom there.

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Samantha Proffitt is a 14-year-old Seaman High School freshman who spends a lot of time at the Topeka Rescue Mission where her father is a resident. David Proffitt said he has been living at the shelter as he tries to kick a drug habit and get his life back in order. He said he is living apart from Samantha's mother and is doing intense Bible study at the mission until that happens. He's been "clean" for about four months, now. "I just wasn't doing what God wanted me to do," he said. "This is how God wants me to be." Samantha says she spends as much time as she can at the mission. "I love it here," she said. "I have friends here. The staff here is awesome."

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“Oh gosh. It’s hard for them, really hard,” Jackson said. “They have friends that don’t even know they’re here (at the shelter) because they’re so scared they’re going to be made fun of.

“They don’t have a lot of space where they can run and play and be kids. They don’t have their own room. All our money goes toward housing. We spend money on clothing here and there, once in a while, and they’re lucky for that. We had to go to donations to get clothing and hygiene, and that’s not very happy for a kid.

“I was in foster homes, I was uprooted from my family at a young age,” she said, “so that kind of prepared me for this. But I don’t think anyone can be really prepared for this. It’s just something that happens tragically in life … it can happen to anybody, anytime.”

Jackson said the family finally lost its home and most belongings after the cleaning service she had worked for five years shut down because of tax problems. She didn’t graduate from high school and is struggling to find new work.

‘Doubling up’

The problem of homelessness isn’t unique to the Topeka district. The Olathe school district reported 427 homeless students last school year, an almost 500 percent increase there since 2006-2007.

According to education department reports to the federal government, there were 9,330 homeless students statewide last school year, a 161 percent increase over the 3,569 reported in 2006-2007, which was the school year right before the Great Recession hit. Nationally, the number of homeless students only increased 72 percent over that same period.

The tallies include various categories of homelessness: Children who are “doubling up” in the homes of friends or relatives, those living in homeless shelters, those living on their own or “unaccompanied,” those living in motels or hotels, and those who are “unsheltered,” which means they might be living beneath a bridge or in a tent in someone’s backyard. The great majority falls in the “doubling up” category.

These problems apparently aren’t lost on many who are familiar with their local schools.

“We recognize that poverty contributes in large part to the achievement gap,” said Tammy Bartels, president of the Kansas PTA, which has about 18,000 members. “Students in poverty tend not to eat as well or get as much medical care. So it is difficult to sit down to read if you have an untreated toothache or if you’re hungry.”

Bartels said a lot of local PTA chapters have started food backpack programs. And the group recently approved a resolution stating that PTAs should support schools in helping homeless students.

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of the resources these kids need has been a victim of the school finance situation,” Bartels said. “They don’t have access to school counselors that could help them identify outside resources. They don’t have access to after-school programs that would help further these kids’ educations. I don’t think schools have the financial ability to support these students as much as they could, not through any fault of the schools. It’s very easy to cut things outside the classroom, such as school nurses who could help identify some of these issues.”

'Band-Aid situation'

Bartels lives in Tonganoxie, which is in Leavenworth County, and graduated from high school there in 1989.

She said when she was in high school there were two counselors. There still are two, she said, but enrollment in the district has gone up about 100 students per year in the interval.

“The number they are expected to serve has nearly doubled in the last 25 years,” she said.

The situation is similar in many other Kansas school districts.

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Rosanne Haberman

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Dunn, the Satanta superintendent, said her schools are about 45 minutes from the nearest community mental health center in Garden City. When a serious issue comes up, the district is pretty much on its own to deal with it.

“When we have a problem, whether it’s a mental health issue or a drug issue in the home or even an alcohol problem, we just don’t have resources for that,” she said. “When we have truancy issues, we don’t have other options like a charter school or a detention facility where the kids are still being educated. We don’t have those kinds of resources. It is us. And when we don’t have a counselor and there’s just a principal in administration, that’s it.”

Dunn said the district has a part-time school nurse that it pays the local hospital to provide. It once had two counselors but now has one part-time counselor for all grades.

And school professionals say the problems they encounter now in classrooms are more complex.

“Most of the time we’re in a Band-Aid situation,” said Haberman, head of the counseling department at USD 501. “We try to get the student back to class, try to teach them how to survive the world they’re in, work with parents to get them to recognize the kinds of issues they’re dealing with, promote seeing someone in the community.

“There is a lot of stress in our society, a lot of bullying going on,” she said. “You have a lot of families working two or three jobs and a lot of children at home by themselves for long periods of time...How do we handle this? We need to figure it out, because it’s a growing problem and it’s pretty worrisome.”



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