Schools and nonprofits work to keep homeless students from falling behind | Education

Local Students in Transition program directors Kathryn Doll, left, for Mandan Public Schools, and Sherrice Roness, middle, for Bismarck Public Schools, and Carrie Grosz, executive director of the nonprofit Carrie’s Kids, advocate for homeless students and their families.

Mike McCleary

Kathryn Doll stands in front of a class of seventh graders at Mandan Middle School and begins to talk about a topic that few students probably think much about.

Homelessness isn’t always the disheveled-looking guy cowering in a dark alley, she tells them.

“Sometimes it’s your friend sitting next to you who slept in his car the night before,” she says.

Doll, the transitional student program family liaison who is employed part-time by the Mandan School District, typically sees 50 to 60 elementary, middle and high school students who live in homeless situations while they take courses every year.

This is a somewhat hidden segment of the homeless population. And Doll seeks to raise awareness by eliminating the stereotype that homeless people are all drug addicts living on the streets.

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“A lot of times it’s little kids sleeping on couches, little kids sleeping on blankets on the floor in a corner” at a friend’s house, she says.

“I don’t think anyone’s goal is to be homeless. You’re at your lowest point when you’re in a situation,” Doll says. “It’s really important for families that people are respectful, empathetic, understanding and non-judgmental.”

shuttle system

The number of homeless students in America has risen from around 680,000 in 2008 to nearly 1.4 million in 2019, according to the National School Boards Association. Homelessness is defined as having no fixed, regular and adequate night residence. For example, a student living in a storage unit or with a friend would be considered homeless.

North Dakota identifies about 2,300 homeless children ages 5 to 18 most years, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.

Bismarck Public Schools launched the Transitioning Student Program in 2003 as awareness of youth homelessness became more apparent. Over 175 homeless students have been identified this school year. Those numbers have risen to an average of 425 over the past decade. The highest mark to date was 524 students in the 2019-2020 school year.

Sherrice Roness, the full-time family liaison for Bismarck’s Transitioning Students program, identifies homeless students, builds relationships, and advocates for them and their families. She also oversees a fleet of three minivans and drivers – soon to grow to five – that transport homeless students.

“I tell everyone that I follow air traffic control in the morning and in the afternoon,” she said.

The shuttle system helps provide stability for students and “reduces their anxiety a bit,” Roness said. “I saw that in the first four weeks of the program and just thought we had to keep going,” she said.

Mandan Public Schools recently purchased a van for the same purpose, and Roness said Fargo Schools is keen to study the program.

Report and recognize

Once the students are in the classrooms, their problems are not erased. They are still internally confronted with their less than optimal housing conditions and unstable family situation.

Teachers and counselors report to Doll and Roness if young people are irritable, not participating or falling asleep in class, or not finishing their homework. Doll said the first step was to recognize that having the student in school “is a huge improvement”.

“(A house) is a basic need,” she said. “If you don’t have a home to go to, you don’t have that basic need, so how can I expect parents and children to learn X, Y, and Z when that basic need isn’t there. unsatisfied?”

Roness said many homeless families were embarrassed or ashamed.

“I try to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to help you; let’s find out,” she said. “And then I can try to connect them with resources to see if they qualify for housing and other community resources that meet their needs.

If a family is in crisis, Roness and Doll sometimes call Carrie Grosz because of her ability to find solutions.

Carrie’s children

Grosz once ran the Students in Transition program and is now executive director of Carrie’s Kids, a local nonprofit that advocates for homeless and at-risk youth and their families.


Carrie Grosz, founder and executive director of Carrie’s Kids, stands in the loft of her building, which houses rows and rows of clothes she has on hand to donate to homeless or at-risk youth in Bismarck-Mandan . The nonprofit youth advocacy organization is a safe place for young people to play games, do arts, complete school work, or participate in programs and events organized to promote social and life skills. “There are so many (kids) who don’t have the same opportunities, and that’s what hurts,” Grosz said. “That’s what hurts me the most, it’s the children who don’t have opportunities – they don’t have a safe home, they don’t have food to eat, they don’t have hot shower.”

Mike McCleary

“Many families must meet certain criteria to be served by the Bismarck public school system,” Roness said. “Being a private nonprofit, Carrie’s Kids doesn’t have to follow these guidelines. If I can’t serve a family, but they are in need, then I call Carrie.”

At the Carrie’s Kids building in South Bismarck, Grosz and his volunteers provide a safe atmosphere for homeless and at-risk youth to participate in arts activities and organized programs, complete schoolwork, work on social skills and life skills, or just hanging out.

As the coronavirus pandemic enters its third year, Grosz sees a lot of desperation among the hundreds of young people it affects each year.

“I see a lot of emptiness,” she says. “My heart aches for every child I meet. I see a lot of things that keep me up at night. We’ve clouded the waters and I see a lot of kids in trouble.”

Grosz guides young people to services when topics such as mental health, addiction, juvenile justice and suicidal thoughts arise.

“One of the things that concerns me more and more is the fact that we’re not coming together as a community anymore,” Grosz said. “It seems that everyone is attached to their technological devices, and I think that has weakened the power of people. We are losing humanity.

She also works to dispel the stereotype that lazy parents are a major reason for homelessness.

“I have so many families who work hard and are dedicated to their children, and the children are responsible,” Grosz said. “You have a mother who sleeps in her car, and she has her children who live with other people and she does the best she can to put all these things together. But these children know that their mother loves them so much that she does everything she can to provide for them.

Lack of support

But many of the runaways and homeless youth Mark Heinert sees in his work as director of the Bismarck program at Youthworks of North Dakota are without the support of family or friends.

Youthworks has offices, emergency shelters and apartments in Bismarck and Fargo for homeless, runaway, trafficked and struggling youth and young adults.

“We found that there are groups that are overrepresented like young adoptees and former young adoptees, and young people of color are vastly overrepresented,” Heinert said.

One group particularly vulnerable to homelessness are LGBTQ youth, according to Heinert. In 2020, a quarter of young people served by his organization were LGBTQ.

“An advocacy issue we’re struggling with is that if I’m a member of the LGBTQ class, it’s not a sheltered class for housing,” Heinert said.

“(Landlords) can watch you bluntly say, ‘I don’t rent to gay people’ and be covered by the law because that’s not a class that’s protected,” he said. “That to me is sad, really sad. And knowing that we serve a population that is so overrepresented, it’s that much harder for young people to move up to the next level when they continue to encounter these barriers.

For Doll at Mandan Middle School, bringing homeless students into the school building is a victory.

“I spoke to the teachers and said having the child here today is a huge improvement,” she said. we’ll start building. We will get there. We’re going to teach them.”

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