Concerned that students with unstable or no homes often wound up dropping out of school, the Maplewood Richmond Heights (Missouri) School District decided to buy a house and convert it to a group home for homeless teens. Included: Information on how to execute this type of project.
Many schools have students whose faces and actions hint at greater burdens than preparing for an upcoming exam or finding a prom date. For some, academic and social commitments are overridden by a more pressing daily concern: Where will I sleep tonight?
After several years of noticing students who had unstable homes or no homes struggle in school and/or drop out, Maplewood Richmond Heights (Missouri) School District superintendent Linda Henke and several community leaders decided to create a home for some of these students.
So in 2006 the district bought a house, now called Joe's Place, to serve as a group home for homeless students. The home is possibly the first group home in the U.S. run by a school district for homeless students.
"It's an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of studentsin need of stability and an opportunity for the community to work together and address this need," said Andrew Vander Maas, a member of the home's advisory board and pastor of a local church, Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship.
The idea for the home came about over time, according to David Kuschel, the district's spokesman. "We have a lot of diversity, kids from all different backgrounds, and our superintendent kept noticing that certain kids were slipping through the cracks and dropping out," he told Education World. "We're a small district -- about 1,000 students -- and administrators get to know the kids well, and they find out some have unstable home lives or are homeless and that affects school. They are more concerned with where they are spending the night than schoolwork."
"We just wished we could take some of these kids home or find some way to make a difference," added Vincent Estrada, the district's director of student services and homeless student coordinator.
The superintendent talked with Vander Maas about the idea for a home and they started enlisting people they knew for the project. The home's name has a connection to an anonymous donor who gave $10,000 to the effort, as well as the idea that the house is a place for "the average Joe," Kuschel said.
In June 2006 the board of education approved the program, and it was granted approval by the city council. The board purchased a home for $250,500 through a building corporation that the district formed, and the building corporation plans to lease the house back to the school district.
The district will pay $33,000 a year for the mortgage, utilities, and some other expenses, and the home's advisory board will be responsible for raising another $22,000 a year to cover expenses.
An advisory board for Joe's Place was appointed that includes Pastor Vander Maas, a board of education member, some district employees, a counselor, and some other members of the religious community. "They provide expertise and general support," noted Kuschel.
The long-term goal is for Joe's Place to become a community organization, separate from the district.
"The school board would like this to become a model for the state and country," added Kuschel.
When Joe's Place opened, it became home to at least four boys between the ages of 16 and 18, and staffed by house parents and a counselor, Kuschel said. Students would stay from Sunday evening until Friday afternoon, unless they had no other place to go over the weekend, in which case they could remain.
"Our idea is to provide a stable place during the school week and make sure they keep in contact with their parents and friends," said Kuschel.
About 18 students have been identified as fitting the criteria for Joe's Place, 12 of them boys. To be eligible to live at Joe's Place, teens must have no criminal record and a parent or guardian's permission to live there. Asked if selecting a teen could create a conflict within a family by offering only one child a place to live, Kuschel said, "That is why the family has to be in complete agreement."
Boys are being targeted initially because they seem to be more prone to homelessness, according to Kuschel.
"Over the age of 16, many shelters won't take boys," added Victor Farwell, a licensed clinical social worker and member of the advisory board who will be working with residents of Joe's Place. "There are two teen shelters in town, but they often are overcrowded."
Farwell has heard about the hardships of homeless teens while counseling some district students with troubled home lives. "Some of the kids talked about living in cars, living with friends, being put out by parents."
Estrada said he probably learns of about 25 to 30 homeless students a year, and suspects there are more. His primary responsibility is to make sure that homeless students can get to school. City and county coordinators have partnerships to help enroll students and provide transportation if they are in a shelter in another town so they can continue attending the district schools.
"We did what we could," Estrada said. "If we found out a kid had to stay with a friend, we would ask teachers to extend assignments, or we would provide bus passes so he or she could get to work "
Estrada is excited that the district is willing to take on a group home. "I think it is a great idea; I knew we had some potential best practices to borrow from in the private sector," he said. "The district is fiscally responsible, but also willing to do things differently if it can."
The district has held several open houses to talk with community members about the project, and most of the neighbors have been positive, according to Kuschel.
"The kids [who move into Joe's Place] already are part of the community; but now, they won't be looking for a place to go after 3 p.m.," he said.
The district's alternative high school also is located in a house down the street from Joe's Place. The middle school alternative school is scheduled to open in a house on the street as well.
"Some people have said it seems like a lot to spend on four kids," Kuschel said. "But the high school staff has done every intervention possible, yet we see them dropping out. I think we will see real benefits to the community."
Added Estrada, "A group home for four kids is meaningful for us. In a way it is an investment; the district bought a home in an area where values are soaring. It's not as extravagant as it seems."
The primary goal of Joe's Place's founders is to see students remain in school and "continue to offer them the dream of completing a high school education and going on to higher education," said Farwell.
"I think it's a wonderful concept; a unique blending of academic, community, and religious efforts to help homeless teens," he added.
Two local restaurants have agreed to donate food two days a week, Farwell said. The other three days, the residents will be cooking together and "hopefully bonding," he said.
Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said that while many school districts across the country are collaborating with shelters to arrange housing and services for homeless students, Maplewood Richmond Heights has gone one step further and committed resources to provide housing.
"It's a great idea that a school district is taking the lead," Duffield told Education World. "What isn't a great is why other agencies aren't stepping up to the plate if there is a need among this population."
Caring for homeless teens is a problem that requires multiple parties, Pastor Vander Maas noted. "It's hard for any one single entity to get its arms around an issue like this, whether it's a school district or someone else. It takes groups willing to work together to address these needs."
And school staff members have seen promise in many of these students, who they believe can flourish under the right circumstances.
"These are students who have potential and strengths and struggle to tap into them because of the instability in their lives," Estrada told Education World. "With some stability, they should be able to tap into those strengths. We see a glimmer of hope -- this is just a way of giving them momentum and traction."