CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - United Way's recently publicized goal to lower absenteeism rates among homeless students has gained momentum with news that A Child's Place is responding with a middle-school initiative to tackle the issue.
Called STAR (Students Today Achieving Results), the new program will create "cheerleading teams" to motivate homeless sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to miss fewer days of school while the family struggles to stabilize itself.
It also will help supply the children's basic needs of food, clothing and school supplies and help them arrange interim school transportation until a bus can be reassigned.
A Child's Place – a nonprofit agency that works to erase the impact of homelessness on children – estimates 250 to 400 middle-school students will qualify for the program, which is being launched at a time when absenteeism is on the rise among low-income elementary and middle-school students.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools recently released data showing that, at elementary schools with a high percentage of low-income students, the percent of children deemed "chronically absent" rose from 8.8 percent in 2011-12 to 11.1 percent last school year. At low-income middle schools, the percentage went from 16.4 percent to 18.8 percent.
Bank of America is giving $20,000 to start the STAR program in three middle schools, part of $662,000 in grants the bank recently presented to 16 nonprofits that work with education and workforce development. The agency is still working with CMS to decide which three schools will be part of the program.
Charles Bowman of Bank of America lauded the STAR program for focusing on seemingly simple problems – such as finding a ride to school – that are major obstacles for homeless children. "It's such a straightforward issue and one that is taken for granted when you have a stable living environment," Bowman said.
A Child's Place leaders give a lot of credit for the new initiative to United Way, which is encouraging its member charities to focus on important community issues as part of its Collective Impact approach.
To further encourage that, United Way is redirecting funds to programs that work to solve such key community issues as homelessness and improving high school graduation rates. Currently, A Child's Place gets $218,000 annually from United Way.
Dennis Marstall, United Way's vice president of community investment, says the STAR program is the first of what he hopes will be a series of charity programs created in response to Collective Impact's homelessness and education goals. A third goal, involving community health, will eventually be added, he said
"A Child's Place is the first of our agencies to deliberately look at how they can increase attendance among its clients," Marstall said. "In the past, school attendance was an afterthought among programs, and now it's at the forefront. United Way began collecting data on the high absentee numbers, and United Way is now driving solutions to bring those numbers down."
The STAR program will have two components: First, it will resolve a child's immediate basic needs for food, clothing, transportation and shelter; then, it will create a plan that has school leaders and the child's parents working together to keep the child motivated, both at home and in school, to attend classes regularly.
The program also will match the students with tutors and mentors.
Currently, children who miss 18 days of school a year are considered chronically absent. The first-year goal for STAR is to reduce the number of times a homeless child is absent by at least one day. The long-term goal is to see the high absentee numbers disappear completely, officials said.
"When a family is in crisis, moving three or four times in a single year, one day more in school is a big goal," said Susan Hansell, executive director of A Child's Place.
"To do this, we'll need a cheerleading school squad that will make the children feel like being in school means something important," she said. "Everybody in this child's life – from the bus driver to the lady at the cash register – will be in the role of telling that child daily that they are glad to see them in school. And we will identify someone in that child's home to play that same role of attendance cheerleader."
Currently, the Salvation Army Center of Hope has Mecklenburg County's highest concentration of homeless kids, with an average of 200 a night. Two-thirds of them are old enough to be in school, shelter officials said.
The children are required to be in school while their parents are staying in the shelter, which has made special arrangements with CMS to have buses come to the shelter to pick up children for school.
Shelter Director Deronda Metz says the Center of Hope has lately seen a lot of homeless parents who try to home-school their children to cope with the constant change of address. However, the center has adopted a policy that all children living on the site must be enrolled in CMS.
She is enthusiastic to see what impact STAR can have on homeless children.
"When a child is homeless and moving from couch to couch, the time at school is the stable part of their day: The school and all the social elements that go with it help normalize their life," Metz said. "So we want to make sure that that remains in place.