POLITICS

The Simple Solution That's Helping Homeless Kids Graduate High School

A couple of school districts in Missouri have found a way to create a stable home environment for struggling kids.
The students of Joe's Place with their house parents during the 2014 - 2014 school year.
The students of Joe's Place with their house parents during the 2014 - 2014 school year.

Presten Pinnell could have been another kid who didn't graduate high school or go to college. During his teen years, he often had to fend for himself when it came to dinner. He spent long nights alone and without adult supervision. Finances were always a problem. Pinnell lived with his dad, who was thrown in jail Pinnell's sophomore year of high school. 

Administrators at Pinnell's school district in Missouri, Maplewood Richmond Heights, knew about his rocky home life. Pinnell would sometimes spend weeks at a time sleeping on friends' couches, so his attendance suffered. He didn't have a space at home where he could sit and study. He couldn't be sure that he would get new school supplies each year, like a backpack, he said. 

Most other school districts wouldn't have been able to offer Pinnell any help beyond short-term fixes like after-school tutoring or donations for school supplies. But Maplewood Richmond Heights had something exceptional to give Pinnell: a stable home. 

After years of not being able to help students like Pinnell, the school district came up with a long-term solution in 2006 when it opened Joe's Place, a district-owned home near the high school. Joe's Place provides a small group of needy students with free shelter, food and a family structure during the week, and the opportunity to stay with family and friends on weekends. At Joe's Place, dinner is served every night at the same time, house parents offer help with homework, and evenings are filled with consistent family activities like movie nights.

Pinnell moved in to Joe's Place the beginning of his junior year, and his life soon transformed. Two years later he graduated high school. Now he is a freshman at the University of Central Missouri, where he is studying occupational therapy.  

"One thing I know for sure is if it wasn’t for Joe's, I wouldn’t be at the university I'm at now," said Pinnell. 

Joe's Place is one of the only public school district programs in the country to provide a home for students who are either homeless or struggling in their current living situation. This year, a school district less than 20 miles away in Jennings, Missouri, started a similar version of Joe's Place -- but for girls. The Jennings School District Hope House opened around Thanksgiving. 

Routine and consistency help provide the foundation for a stable adolescence, and that is exactly what Joe's Place and Hope House try to offer. Children staying there have no commute to school and they know exactly when their next meal will be. Above all, there are adults looking out for them, caring about them and making them feel loved.

In the case of Joe's Place, the student residents have seen their grade point averages and attendance rates improve. And they are more likely to graduate from high school than other students facing similar circumstances. 

The Students

The Jennings School District Hope House.
The Jennings School District Hope House.

Both the Maplewood Richmond Heights and Jennings school district serve populations of impoverished students. In Jennings, 100 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In Maplewood, about half of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In both places, there is a group of persistently homeless students who struggle academically. 

The idea for Joe's Place came when the former superintendent at Maplewood, Linda Henke, relayed her concerns about serving homeless students to a local businessman. It wasn't long before he wrote Henke a $10,000 check to get started on finding a solution, district director of student services Vince Estrada recalled. In collaboration with Crossroads Presbyterian Fellowship Church and with the help of grants and private donations, the district purchased a house. They hired house parents. They recruited students.

After visiting Joe's Place this fall, Jennings Superintendent Tiffany Anderson realized her district needed to implement a similar program. In Jennings, the district typically serves 150 to 200 homeless families a year. Anderson found a vacant home already owned by the district, and staff got to work on flipping it.

"When you think about how many districts already own houses ... why not repurpose it for something so much more meaningful?" said Anderson. "I told our team we would have 30 days to flip that house like that HGTV show. They thought it was absolutely crazy, but the longer we wait, the longer kids are without a home."

Jennings student Gwen McDile, 17, moved into Hope House nearly a month ago, and she says she can already see that it has made an academic difference. She is currently the only student living in the Hope House with her two house parents, although more girls -- including two in the foster care system -- are expected to move in soon. 

Before living in Hope House, McDile was living with her boyfriend and her boyfriend's mom outside the district. She had to take two buses to get to school, a process that often made her late. She has only limited contact with her parents. 

Now, McDile says, she gets to school "every day and on time."

"There are computers here," she says. "There are laptops. There are always pens and paper. I never have an excuse to not do homework." 

When Pinnell moved into Joe's Place, he also saw nearly immediate results, although the move took some adjusting to at first.

"I wouldn’t say it was a culture shock, but it was something in that area. There was dinner every night, there was a disciplined schedule -- which was something I never had," said Pinnell. "Eventually, I got really comfortable there and started calling it home not too far into the semester. It doesn’t take too long for someone to fall in love with Joe's." 

When Pinnell returned from college on break this month, he visited Joe's Place to see his former house parents, along with his younger brother, who now also lives at Joe's.

"He's doing exponentially better in academics," Pinnell said of his brother. 

The House Parents

Students and house parents celebrating Christmas at Joe's Place during the 2014 - 2015 school year.
Students and house parents celebrating Christmas at Joe's Place during the 2014 - 2015 school year.

Shelley Watts, 47, had spent four years as a therapeutic foster parent for Missouri Baptist Children’s Home. But she was single and working two jobs, and at a certain point, it just became a "little too much," she says. "I was just looking for a change."

Then, in early November, she got a call from her old supervisor at Missouri Baptist, who told her about Hope House and the need for house parents. Watts and her new fiance, Scott Croft, agreed to meet with Anderson to learn more. The night after meeting with Anderson, they decided they were in.

Watts quit her job. The couple delayed their wedding a month, and eventually got married in mid-December. 

In the house, Watts makes sure Gwen has "food, clothing, shelter, and basic things right off the bat." But she also describes her job as "just being there for [Gwen]. Guiding her. Mentoring her in a way. Helping her see the opportunity she has right now, and helping her make the most of it. And just being a friend."

At Joe's Place, Jeremy Mapp works as a sixth-grade teacher for the district by day, and serves as a house parent to four Joe's Place boys at night with his wife. In a typical evening, he says, he will serve students dinner, help them with homework, and then involve the teens in a family activity.

"A few years ago we had zero kids and now we have seven," he said, referring to all the kids he has worked with at Joe's Place. "You become a lifelong part of their lives, you hope, and you hope that they see it that way too."

The Outcomes

It's too soon to tell how Hope House will play out in Jennings. But in Maplewood, Joe's Place has been a success.

Twenty-three out of 24 students who have resided at Joe's Place have graduated from high school. The district compares this to the graduation rate of a group of students who did not participate in Joe's Place but who faced similar harsh life circumstances. The latter group has only seen two out of 21 students graduate.

"That made us think we were probably on the right track," said Estrada, although he notes, "There were probably some other factors, too. I think kids who are drawn to community living might already have the capacity to do better in school."

After joining Joe's Place, students' grades and attendance rates tend to improve, he adds. 

Indeed, "you can’t really creep any grades past the house parents," said Pinnell.

Anderson thinks other districts facing similar issues should start their own programs to house students.

"When you realize your only real barrier is your own mindset, if you can transform that and think out of the box, you can do just about anything to make sure kids do well," she said.

______

Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

______

CONVERSATIONS