Big Problem, Low Priority: Part 1 of 5 - KCTV5

Big Problem, Low Priority: Part 1 of 5

WYANDOTTE COUNTY, KS (KCTV) -

Almost every day, there is more news about another round of cuts to the education budget. From teachers losing their jobs, to schools cutting back on programs.

In tonight's KCTV5 news investigation, chief investigative reporter Dana Wright uncovers a service that costs local districts hundreds of thousands of dollars with no way out.

Over the past two years, local school districts all over the metro have seen an explosion in the number of homeless students. But studies show children in turmoil at home can still thrive at school under one condition -- if they remain in the same school.

So in 2001, Congress passed a law mandating every school district in America provide its homeless kids with a ride to and from school. For example, a school could be required to pick up a child at a shelter in Kansas City and drive them to an Olathe school every day.

While it seemed like a good idea in sound economic times, the recession has exploded the number of homeless students who need help.
The sun wasn't even up outside a small house off of Independence Avenue recently, and inside sisters Junyay and Jamiee Johnston were already away and ready to begin an 11-hour school day.

Over the past few months, Rebecca Johnston and her girls have bounced from a shelter in Kansas City, to a rental house in Kansas City, Kan., and finally to a place in Missouri, which was paid for through the end of April with Johnston's tax return. She is an example of the new face of homelessness in America.

Even though the girls are living in Missouri, their school is several miles away in Kansas City, Kan. Federal law mandates that school districts provide transportation to homeless children to and from school regardless of where they sleep at night.

Every morning, a Lincoln Town Car arrives before dawn to take the Johnston sisters and four other homeless students to school. On a typical day, the girls have already been up for an hour when the car arrives at 6:30 a.m. and they hit the road.

"This isn't just the urban poor, this is everyone," said Staci Pratt, a homeless liaison for the Kansas City, Kan., schools. "This is Johnson County, Shawnee County, rural Kansas, this is America."

She said districts all over the metro are struggling to keep up with the exploding costs of transporting homeless students in an economy that has changed the face of homelessness in America.

Statistics show the average age of a homeless person in Wyandotte County is 7 years old. So homelessness has become much more about families with children than what typical stereotypes might portray.

It was with children in mind that the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001 was born. Under the law, districts were told to "report the number of homeless students every year to the state and transport homeless students to and from their school of origin."

In the middle of a state budget crisis, districts must continue paying for homeless transportation, often times with little or no help from the federal government to help pay for it.
Back inside the Town Car, it's 6:53 a.m. and the driver stops to pick up another student. The girls are still nowhere near their school.

There are 30 shelter beds in all of KCK, so homeless families looking for shelter are frequently forced to fan out.

"These concentric circles identify the zones in which we provide transportation," Pratt said. "These arrows show various shelters we've had clients staying in. And so you can see, this is all the way down by the zoo."

So on top of the district's cost to drive the kids, some of the students end up having a very long day dealing with the transportation time involved.

So why aren't homeless kids taken to schools closer to where they stay?

"I have heard that idea before," Pratt said. "And what I say is you know most of our families move four to five times a year and in that situation, if you're losing four to six months of academic achievement, you're basically lost academically. And those kids will drop out of high school. They will end up in trouble with the law. They will not be contributing members of our society."

But transporting kids to their original schools comes at a staggering cost. In Olathe, the district will pay $44,000 to transport kids this year. In Shawnee Mission, the tab is $150,000. The Kansas City, Mo., district will spend $194,000. And in Kansas City, Kan., the district spent $295,000 transporting the kids.

Districts are trying to come up with cheaper, more efficient solutions. In Kansas City, Kan., they are building free housing for homeless teens within the district boundaries. But Pratt said the real problem is so much bigger than one district can address.

"There is a four-year wait for a Section 8 voucher in Wyandotte County," she said. "We as a society have decided housing is not a priority over the decades. The consequence is paid by the children. At this point, the house is on fire. I have to transport those children."

By 7:30 a.m., Jamiee Johnston was getting out of the car after an hour-and-15-minute commute. By the time he drops off her sister, it was 7:58 a.m.

Wright talked to the leaders of several nonprofit groups in Washington, D.C., about what could be done on the federal level to help the cash-strapped schools. Last week, a New Jersey senator started circulating a petition asking legislators to double the funding under McKinney-Vento from $65 million to $140 million. Still some districts told KCTV5 that even then it would not be nearly enough to cover the costs of homeless transportation.

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