POVERTY UNDER THE SUN: ADVANCING FLORIDA’S POOR
Students open up about their experience with poverty and homelessness at DeLand conference.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
Bryanna Anderson is an African-American senior enrolled at Mainland High School in Daytona Beach. Amidst tears and fragile nerves, she shared an emotional story this month that chronicles a life of poverty and homelessness.
Her captive audience was a packed room of Volusia County educators and community leaders attending the 2015 Poverty and Homeless Conference (PHC) on Oct. 23 at Stetson University.
“It all started when my oldest brother was sent off to prison. My mom felt like she was a failure. We stayed in shelters, shelters, more shelters, and when time was up, we’d have to move out. We’d stay with other people, and in hotels. The saddest thing was when me and my mother were going to the store and she was arrested right in front of me. I was 15 years old. My uncle came and got me, took me to his house, but all my stuff was still at some hotel.”
Statistics that stall learning
Anderson’s reality aligns with harsh facts. The state of Florida has one of largest populations of homeless children and youth, and according to the 2015 Florida Council on Homelessness Annual Report, 71, 446 students were identified as homeless during the 2013-2014 school year.
More than 1.6 million children living in the United States are homeless (Institute for Children Poverty and Homelessness, 2014) and over 16 million live below the poverty line. The government considers a family of four to be impoverished if they take in less than $22,000 per year (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2014).
Public education policy
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan first signed the McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which has been reauthorized serval times, most notably in 2002. The law states: “Schools must ensure that homeless children have equal access to a free, appropriate public education.”
While the latter policy was drafted to protect school-aged students like Anderson, her haunting residential plight challenges the ability to legally report to school each morning with a presence of mind to learn.
With a family in a state of domestic disarray, where do students like Anderson find the fortitude to be enthusiastic and attentive? How are they expected to perform as academic achievers when they sleep at night doubled-up in cars, separated from loved ones in shelters, or attempt to complete homework assignments in the noisy confines of crowded hotel rooms? And how do they muster courage to tell a teacher, or anyone, their embarrassing circumstances?
To better understand how to empathetically embrace and strategically teach impoverished students just like Anderson, more than 280 Volusia County educators and community leaders convened on Oct. 23 at Stetson University for the Poverty and Homelessness Conference themed “Collective Action: Together We Rise.”
The PHC is the brainchild of Rajni Shankar-Brown, Ph.D. who has served as an associate professor, director of Education Graduate Programs, and the Jesse Ball DuPont Chair of Social Justice Education at Stetson University since 2013.
Shankar-Brown is both founder and executive director of the conference – a grassroots effort and collaborative initiative between Stetson University and Volusia County Schools (VCS). The core mission is to advance social justice by increasing the social-emotional, well-being and academic success of children and youth.
“The 2015 PHC was an amazing conference and tremendous success. The United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world yet over 2.5 million children and youth experience homelessness yearly in the United States. This is heartbreaking and unacceptable,” said Shankar-Brown. “I believe the Civil Rights Movement continues and poverty is a large part of the battle we must actively address.
With persistent and growing numbers of families with children in poverty and homelessness, this merits our immediate attention,” Shankar-Brown added.
Social justice focus
The PHC included 10 breakout sessions for attendees, with each framed to illuminate the connections between racism, sexism, heterosexism, and ableism in relationship to poverty and homelessness.
According to Shankar-Brown, the conference was intentionally designed around a social justice framework and created with the intersectionality of justice issues in mind.
Superintendent keeps it real
Present at the PHC was Volusia County Schools Superintendent James “Tom” Russell. He offered startling statistics and poignant words for his committed corps of educators.
“Allow me to paint a picture of Volusia County. We have about 63,000 students and 64 percent of those students are on free and reduced lunch and many of those are homeless,” shared Russell. “So, in every classroom, in theory, six out of every 10 children are impoverished and that’s roughly 40,000 students or more. Roughly 4 percent of those are homeless and anywhere between 1500 and 2500 students are highly mobile,” added Russell.
According to Russell, teachers have all the pillars that define middle class: a consistent paycheck, health care and retirement. Teachers get frustrated because children coming from impoverished and homeless environments, where there is continual change, cannot focus in on achievement orientation.
“As adults, that’s what we have to work on,” said Russell. “The uncertainty in the impoverished child’s life impacts their social and emotional wellness and their academics. If teachers and administrations do not deal with the person first, the academics will not follow, and we have to work on building relations with kids.”
Russell closed by thanking each teacher for the jobs they do day in and day out and added: “We’re here today because we care for people who may not have anyone to care for them, and we’re here today to learn different strategies and perspectives. Collectively, our actions will help children and that’s what we’re about in education.”
The Stetson University Lynn Business Center’s rooms accommodated mass groupings of educators and advocates who were eager to learn how to best teach students who comprise the impoverished and homeless populous.
Sessions broached subjects that ran the gamut of school administrators’ roles, poverty perceptions and misperceptions, homelessness and LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual, transgender, queer) youth and more.
“Working with Homeless and Highly Mobile Families” was presented by the Title I Parental Involvement Team led by Althia G. Thompson, VCS Title I project manager of parental involvement and summer programs. Joining Thompson were colleagues Kerri Thompson-Walker, Llidia Velado of the Parent Involvement Team and Title 1 coordinator Sandra Kaye.
Among the wealth of information conveyed by Thompson’s team was a working definition of VCS children and youth deemed homeless: “Students lacking a fixed, regular and adequate night-time residence.”
Participants were informed of the rights of homeless children, barriers to learning and how school stability is critical to education success. According to the team, “Students who switch schools frequently score lower on standardized tests, mobility also hurts non-mobile students, it takes children four to six months to recover academically after changing schools, and students suffer psychologically, socially, and academically from high mobility and are less likely to participate in activities.”
Jessica Szymczyk, Stetson University clinical supervisor and counselor joined Debbie Fisher, VCS health services coordinator, in a focused, yet fun and interactive workshop titled “Empathy Development: Experience Challenges Faced by Students Living in Poverty.”
In groups of three to four, participants engaged in hands-on activities that demonstrated how communication can be misinterpreted, the effects of being both included and ignored and what it feels like to be in a state of physical (and emotional) pain. The intended result was to gain empathy for students in peril.
Arguably the finest hour of the PHC was the concluding student voices panel comprised of five African-American students including Anderson. Stetson University seniors Chantel Vasquez, Tiffaney Langhorn, Alexander Scott Greene, and Chyina Powell passed a lone microphone one to the other. They each painfully emoted honest and raw testimonies that personified the litany of statistics spewed throughout the day.
Langhorn is a New York native and president of the student homeless coalition at Stetson. She was previously featured on a CBS “60 Minutes’’ episode titled “Hard Times Generation.”
The special broadened America’s view of homeless children and families living in Seminole County.
According to the broadcast, “So many area kids have lost their homes. School buses now stop at dozens of cheap motels where families crowd into rooms living week to week.”
“My mother shared with me that in New York we struggled. She and I lived in one shelter and my father lived in another shelter,” said Langhorn. “We moved to Florida because my grandparents lived here in Lake Mary. Both my parents got jobs, but everyone in the area was very affluent and for me it was always a struggle to try and fit in. The summer before I reached high school, things began to go bad.’’
The articulate psychology major who has emerged as a leader among her peers shared how a relative’s death in Haiti led to her family’s emotional and financial demise. Included were reports of her father’s mental health diagnosis and suicide attempts followed by his arrest and incarceration.
Langhorn’s family now included a younger brother and their daily lives became a cyclic quagmire of evictions and forced pawnshop activity just to garner funds for meals. A high school diploma was eventually earned and despite attending Stetson on a limited scholarship, Langhorn shared that each collegiate year has been wrought with financial challenges.
With the assistance of a relative, she has settled an outstanding university account and eventually moved off campus, but remains an active voice in student activities.
Hell on earth
Alexander Scott Greene is an African-American male with a triumphant story, but his life’s narrative could have easily ended with him as a homicide statistic. He was raised in the heart of Atlanta’s inner city, which he describes as “hell on earth.”
Green was raised by a mother whose life was plagued by drug addiction. He met his father but was essentially raised without a male influence. Admittedly, he is a bright and competitive young man but acquired a passive-aggressive personality coupled with a hatred for both life and people.
“I lived on the Westside of Atlanta and knew if I went to my zoned school I might not make it out,” said Greene, who further shared that he once missed 75 days out of his 180-day school calendar.
A grandmother’s love
“I transferred to the school in my grandmother’s neighborhood, but it took two buses and a train to get there. I had to get up early, often arrived late, and often went to school just to get a hot lunch.”
A brewing verbal confrontation with his mother resulted in Greene being sent to live with his estranged father. The pair fought daily and to the extent of the son threatening to kill his own parent.
“That summer, I decided I didn’t care what happened, I’m leaving. I left my dad’s home,” said Greene. “My 63-year-old grandmother, who lived on a fixed income, opened her doors to me. That was the changing point of how I viewed the world and people,” added Greene, who shared that he always had support from mentors and teachers, which was integral to his sustained academic success.
Salutatorian, Gates scholar
In his senior year, Greene learned he was ranked No. 3 in his high school class, but ever the competitor, he wanted to be No. 1.
“I did the math. I realized it was only possible for me to catch No. 2 unless the valedictorian failed a class,” shared Greene. “That wasn’t happening because she was on her game.”
A well-groomed young man who wreaks charisma, Greene graduated as salutatorian of Maynard H. Jackson High School in 2012. He was subsequently admitted to eight Georgia colleges including Emory and Mercer, but Green chose Stetson. He is currently a Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship recipient majoring in psychology who attributes being raised in poverty to being grounded and goal-oriented.
“In a way, I am grateful for it (poverty),” Greene explained. “The struggle is what made me, but it wasn’t easy.”
Penny Dickerson is a 2015 “Equal Voice” Journalism Fellow of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a private, nonprofit grant-making organization, which seeks to increase the public’s understanding of the issues and policies that affect families living in poverty. Through profiles, vignettes and features, Dickerson’s series hopes to shift public perception and broaden awareness in areas that critically affect the definition of poor people of color by reporting from four quadrants of the state – Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Daytona and Miami. Her fellowship stories are being published in the Daytona Times and Florida Courier.