A recent report from the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions finds the state has one of the largest populations of homeless students in the country.
The school district with the highest number of reported homeless students in the state is Kalamazoo Public Schools, the state's 13th largest district.
The district is composed of 26 schools with approximately 13,000 students. The UM report found 904 of those students reported experiencing homelessness.
Michael Rice, the superintendent for Kalamazoo Public Schools spoke with Stateside about the efforts his district is making to help its homeless students.
Rice said the homeless population is distributed across the district. While there are some schools with higher percentages of homeless students, there are children experiencing homelessness across all the district's schools.
“We have very very high poverty in Kalamazoo. Of the thirteen largest districts in the state, our poverty is top three among those 13 largest districts — Detroit, Grand Rapids, and KPS are the three highest poverty. As a result, and all else being equal, it's not surprising that our homelessness rate would be top three in the state."
Rice questions the validity of Detroit's numbers, though. According to UM Poverty Solutions, Detroit only reported 605 homeless students.
“I find it difficult to believe a district that is four times the size of KPS doesn’t have more homeless children than we do,” Rice said. “I suspect that there are counting issues.”
Regardless of how Kalamazoo matches up against other districts, Rice is striving to improve educational experiences for homeless students. Rice said he wants school to function as a “shelter in the storm” for these children.
Rice says the district has a vareity of supports for those students, including magnet schools and community partnerships.
Any child in the district can attend one of the seven KPS magnet schools. Rice said transportation to these schools is free regardless of where a student lives. This allows students with a more transient home situation to remain at the same school, even if they move.
The district also has over 200 community partners — a tactic UM Poverty Solutions recommends for districts with large homeless populations. Loaves and Fishes — a local food pantry — has partnered with the district to create eight food pantries inside of Kalamazoo schools. Rice said they would like to eventually have a pantry at every school.
Two and a half years ago, Kalamazoo also established a mentoring programming in the district. The program began with male staff members mentoring boys, but has since expanded to include mentors for girls.
According to Rice, the overall graduation rate for Kalamazoo is up 10 percent since 2010. The district does not track the specific graduation rate for homeless students, but Rice said the graduation rate for “economically disadvantaged students” is on the rise.
“Clearly there are more children who are free or reduced price lunch eligible than there are children who are homeless in the district, but if you’re making an impact on the one, you tend to be making an impact on the other,” Rice explained.
Though the increased graduation rates show promise, Rice said there is still more to be done at the state and local level.
The Kalamazoo school district has begun to train teachers and staff on working with kids who have experienced trauma. Rice believes this training should be required at any school district with a large numbers of homeless students. He think it's also important for that training to be a part of teacher education programs.
“This (training) is getting a sense of the trauma that a number of our young people face as a function of their adverse childhood experiences, and getting a sense of how to address young people who have had these, or who are currently having these, adverse childhood experiences.”
The school district receives the majority of its funding from the state level but according to Rice, it isn't enough to meet the needs of students experiencing challenges like poverty and homelessness.
“We are underfunded,” Rice said. “When you look at the number of nurses, the number of social workers, the numbers of psychologists, psychiatrists, the number of mental health therapists, the wrap-around services that we have for our young people — the counselors, student-teacher ratios, you can see repeatedly that there are not enough resources to do the job, particularly with children with profound challenges, particularly with children who are homeless."