‘It takes a village’: How schools are removing barriers so kids can learn

Meghan Goth
Meghan Goth
Meghan Goth is LINK nky's managing editor. Email her at [email protected]

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David Childs experienced homelessness as a young adult. He remembers always being hungry. 

“Many times my brothers and sisters and I went to school hungry,” he said. “Honestly, what we liked most about school was lunch.” 

Childs said his entire childhood revolved around getting something to eat. 

“I’ve always been good at school,” Childs said. “But if I’m hungry, school is not going to be effective for me.” 

As public education finds itself under more of a microscope than ever – with debate over critical race theory; how schools are funded; how that money should be spent; and who gets to decide curriculum – Childs, who is now a professor of social studies, history and Black studies at Northern Kentucky University, said the idea that education and social services should be separated is unequivocally wrong. 

“A lot of individuals idealize the past,” Childs said. “There is this hearkening back to the good ol’ days, but it’s mythical. There never were good ol’ days. It’s a myth.” 

In terms of education, when it first became a priority to educate all children regardless of socioeconomic status (though that didn’t include most children of color or girls), memorization and reasoning skills were prioritized, he said. Students had to sit still and repeat whatever their teacher, who stood at the front of the classroom, told them to. 

But now, Childs said, schools are realizing that there are a lot of things students need in schools that they haven’t been providing. More resources are being dedicated to things like a child’s health, cleanliness, whether they have a place to live, their dental health, their mental health, and more. 

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“It’s difficult for a student to learn if they’re hungry,” Childs said. “What we do in the U.S is we say it’s the parents’ fault. And they blame the students’ challenges on the parents. But in public schools it’s our responsibility to educate the students no matter what socioeconomic background they come from. But we like to blame the parents. Why should we put that responsibility on a kindergartner?” 

A lot of these challenges with things like a need for social services and mental health services exist throughout our country, Childs said. 

“We understand better now that students need dental services,” Childs said. “Students need social/emotional learning training, and all kinds of things we didn’t get at first. But we understand now and we are being more progressive about it.” 

Families in Transition is one of the ways the Erlanger/Elsmere School District has found to address these needs. The school-based organization provides assistance to children experiencing homelessness, and works in conjunction with the district’s health coordinator to address whatever presents itself as a barrier to a child’s education. 

Each year, the district identifies about 325 students experiencing homelessness, said Shelley Werner, district coordinator for Families in Transition. That is about 13 percent of the school’s population, which she said is consistent with most of the districts in the region. 

The McKinney-Vinto National Center for Homeless Education defines homeless children and youth as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” 

Shelly Werner. Photo by Abigail Shoyat

“The most important thing is to identify students who need our services,” Werner said. “We remove barriers for immediate enrollment, like if you lack a birth certificate or proof of residency. We look at transportation so you can get to and from school.”

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This allows a student to receive origin rights, which lets them continue to attend their school for up to a year even if their parents move out of the district. 

“Oftentimes students experiencing homelessness move seven to eight times per year,” Werner said. “You can imagine what a toll that would take on students when they have to change schools and teachers and friends.” 

The services that Families in Transition provides depends on what a student needs in order to remove the barriers for education, she said. 

That can consist of: 

  • Transportation to school or medical appointments 
  • Food insecurities – The schools have a food pantry on campus and serve breakfast and lunch to any child who needs it throughout the summer – whether they are a student in the district or not 
  • School supplies
  • Clothing items
  • Mental and physical health services 
  • They even have a dental center 

The organization has helped families with buying things for holidays; with getting missing documents they don’t have, like a birth certificate; they help high school seniors fill out documents to get college loans; they have even helped get a family’s trailer demolished. The family purchased a new trailer, but they didn’t have anything to do with the old one, and just getting it towed would have cost $6,000. 

“It was infested with roaches and they had an opportunity to get a new trailer, but only once the first one was taken care of,” Werner said. “We worked with a construction company to demo it so they could bring their new trailer in.” 

Whether they are dealing with a student who has moved so many times they have given up on trying to keep up in school or a family that has been living in a hotel and they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to continue to stay there, Werner said they will always find a way. 

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“If there is a need, we will find a way to help them,” Werner said. 

Melanie Dowdy, Erlanger/Elsmere’s District Health Services coordinator, echoes that sentiment. 

“You can’t educate a child who is in pain or who is not healthy,” Dowdy said. “We are here to remove any barriers for that child to be in school.” 

Melanie Dowdy. Photo by Abigail Shoyat.

If a student has been sick and needs nebulizer breathing treatments every four hours, for instance, Dowdy said the school can accommodate that. 

“A lot of times parents don’t realize what we can accommodate at school,” she said. 

A dentist office is set up at Lloyd High School in an old classroom, where students can get their teeth cleaned, receive X-rays, and even get basic extractions taken care of. The district does vision and hearing screenings, basic first aid, medication administration. 

“If there is a barrier that we can recognize and remove, that’s what we are here to do,” Dowdy said. “It does take a village.”

To ignore the fact that a student is hungry or whose tooth hurts or who has untreated anxiety lacks empathy, Childs said. 

“Who are we to say, ‘That’s not my problem. I’m a math teacher,’” he said. “To ignore the problem and say schools aren’t educating anymore is completely missing the ballgame.” 

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