In early summer, F Mike Miles restructured the Central Office. Members of the homeless department were scattered to other departments or left HISD. Not surprisingly, there have been tangible, harmful consequences to HISD’s unhoused students.
“HISD reported more than 7,200 homeless students in the 2022-23 school year — the highest number in at least nine years.” For Miles to have significantly downsized the homeless department is yet another example of the contemptible disregard Miles shows our most complicated students and their families.
In October, a nine-year-old homeless student was involuntarily withdrawn from elementary school just over a week after the mother enrolled her in school. Her mother had informed the school that she was unhoused and asked for transportation for her child as required by federal law for homeless children. When the mother came to the school to talk to the principal, the school had her arrested and she spent eight days in jail.
Current and retired principals tell us that they have never administratively withdrawn an elementary school student for absences alone. In fact, itis against compulsory attendance state law to do so. Traditionally, principals provide wraparound support for students with chronic attendance problems or set up an attendance contract with the child/parent. One principal even picked up students with chronic attendance problems on their drive to school every day.
The administrators we contacted said that they relied on Central Office support when they were novice principals for information like the McKinney Vento Act for supporting homeless students.
But there is no homeless department anymore in the eighth-largest school district in the nation’s fourth-largest city. Setting up seven Sunrise Centers for services in a district as geographically spread out as HISD is good PR but does not mean anything if none of the centers are nearby or even known to exist by the people needing services. That is why there are hundreds of food pantries in Houston, not just seven.
You can read the entire Dec 26th Houston Public Media story here and an abridged version below.
“Dionna Johnson was furious.
The 39-year-old mother of three had just gotten a call from Marques Collins, the principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary, where she enrolled her daughter in early October. According to Johnson, the principal said her daughter was being withdrawn from school due to a string of absences.
"He kept saying, ‘You can’t bring her back here, don’t bring her back here,'" Johnson alleged. "‘This is not a babysitting service, so if you bring her back, we’ll call CPS and the police.'"
It was a Friday afternoon — October 20, just over a week after she enrolled her daughter — and Johnson was still at work. She called the school and Central Office, again and again, without getting a clear resolution. Her anger grew.
"There was one phone call where I told them, ‘You’re not going to kick my nine-year-old daughter out for being homeless,'" she recalled. "I said, ‘I will level this whole city block and watch it all come down before you kick my nine-year-old daughter out of school who's done nothing.'"
When she arrived at the school, Johnson was arrested in front of her daughter and charged with a felony "terroristic threat." According to county records, she pled guilty after eight days in jail and was released…
Johnson — who asked that her daughter remain unnamed — has lupus and can't afford health insurance. On bad days, her joints ache, her body swells and she urinates blood. She sometimes lands in the hospital. Work is easy to get but hard to keep. She's bounced from apartments to, more recently, temporary housing in motels and short-term rentals.
Because the family doesn't have "fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence," her daughter meets the federal definition of "homeless youth" under federal law. According to records Johnson shared with Houston Public Media, she informed the school of their homeless status upon enrollment on Oct. 10. The enrollment happened late in the year because her daughter had been staying with extended family while Johnson sought work; after she got a job, her daughter returned…
…"We’ve already been documented as homeless for the last two years, so it’s nothing new," she said. "The previous schools have been awesome with getting us to and from school and helping us with the needs that we have."...
…"I just started a new job, and I needed transportation and clothes and shoes and school supplies," she said. "They gave her a pair of shoes, but they didn’t give her any school supplies, no uniforms. They didn’t even work on any transportation for my daughter. So unfortunately, she missed a lot of school because I hadn’t had my first check yet, and I couldn’t afford to get her to and from school."
In its attendance policies handbook for the current school year, the Texas Education Agency states that schools "must not withdraw a student who is temporarily absent." Johnson insisted she did not request or agree to remove her daughter from the school. She recently obtained the withdrawal document from the district — it only has the principal's signature, not hers.
After her release from jail, Johnson recorded a call with a Houston ISD compliance staffer.
"I do apologize for that — that she was withdrawn from the campus," the staffer told Johnson. "I spoke with Principal Collins directly and his superior as well, and they did confirm that your student was withdrawn. However, she should not have been without you filling out a form.”
….Johnson was released from jail just before Halloween. Her daughter has been staying with family in South Carolina since her arrest.
What is Houston ISD doing for homeless families?
Houston ISD did not make anyone available for an interview for this story, but a spokesperson did point to the new Sunrise Centers as an example of the district's commitment to serving its more than 6,000 students who are documented as homeless…
…As the Houston Chronicle reported, the district spent about $12 million on the program over the past six months. In press releases, the district said the centers provide a range of supports, like before and after-school care, mental health services, tutoring and school supplies.
For Johnson, the nearest Sunrise Center is a 30-minute bus ride to the north, at the Youth Development Center location. It opened while she was in jail. Five other Sunrise Centers opened between September and then, but when asked if she had ever been to one, Johnson's response highlighted a concern raised by skeptics of the initiative: will families who need the services actually know they exist?
"I don't know what that is," Johnson said. "They didn’t tell me."
Critics, like teachers' union president Jackie Anderson, also argue the district should focus on making those resources directly accessible at the more than 270 campuses across Houston ISD — by expanding the pre-existing, campus-based Wraparound Services — rather than concentrating supports into eight hubs across the more than 300 square miles the district covers.
"If you don't have a way to get your child to school, how are you going to have a way to get to the Sunrise Center?" Anderson asked. "This is the reason why we push the services on that campus. This is where the children are, this is where the need is."...
…"People say that they care about student outcomes," Kathy Blueford Daniels, (former HISD Trustee) said. "Well, look at that one example of that outcome. The child is withdrawn — or actually was removed — and now has gone back out of state. And obviously, the child is not with their mother."
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