Five Questions with Dr. Patricia Popp: Training is Critical to Support Students Experiencing Homelessness

Dr. Pat Popp is the Virginia State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has outsourced the homeless education program, called Project HOPE-Virginia, to the William and Mary School of Education since 1995. Pat oversees and carries out all of the state’s requirements to implement the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program for Virginia, including state level policies, interagency collaboration, training, technical assistance, monitoring of school districts, and awarding and managing subgrants to school districts (of which the state has 132). For the past several years, Virginia schools have identified approximately 20,000 students as experiencing homelessness at some point during an academic year. Pat notes that her favorite part of the job is problem solving with like-minded colleagues who care about doing what is right to support students.

How and why is training teachers (both pre-service and in the field) a big part of how you support students experiencing homelessness?

Being located in a School of Education, I have the opportunity to teach preservice teachers and incorporate the study of student homelessness into those classes where there is a strong intersection (such as issues of mobility and the impact on classroom management). In addition, I have been a guest lecturer for other education classes, undergraduate service learning groups, and our W&M Law School. Our office also has the benefit of hiring graduate assistants studying at W&M. These students become our HOPE ambassadors when they graduate and begin working in Virginia schools. Being the State Coordinator, I also have many opportunities to share our work with teachers in the field.

I was a teacher for students with disabilities when I entered the W&M doctoral program almost 25 years ago. I still see myself primarily as an educator. I truly believe that nothing we do in education makes a difference unless it affects a student. Since teachers have the most direct influence on our students, it is imperative that they be part of our work in homeless education. Teachers can be sensitive to the warning signs that a student is facing housing instability and should know how to make appropriate referrals to the local liaison to enhance our identification process. Teachers should have strategies that make students feel welcome, wanted, and safe in their classrooms so they can learn. Teachers need a large repertoire of supports to address the physical and affective needs of their students. Whether it means having snacks and extra breakfast items in the class for anyone who is hungry or assigning a buddy (I prefer “academic ambassador”) when a new student joins the class midyear, there are so many small steps teachers can take to reach our students.

“Teachers can inspire students or demoralize them. They need to know what great power they hold in the lives of their students. We need to support our teachers by acknowledging their importance in our work, ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to serve our students, and doing a better job of reaching out to them and then listening to their voices as we navigate our future work.”

What are some of your most effective and eye-opening teacher training strategies?

In addition to the McKinney-Vento basics of definition and rights to immediate enrollment and school stability, I find the most powerful part of any training is the use of activities that give teachers a chance to “feel” what it is like to lack resources that people who are more affluent take for granted. I give Jani Koester, a Wisconsin liaison, credit for filling my toolkit with empathy-building activities: the United Way Making Choices budget activity, her “What is Your Day Like?” questionnaire, and, when there is time, her Mobility Shuffle simulation. It is becoming more common that a preservice or current teacher will come up to me individually after a training and share their own history of homelessness. The hope I derive from these conversations is knowing we will have teachers who really understand what our students go through and can help change the narrative about what the future needs to be for students who are homeless. Students need to hear about success stories, and the more we have, the more we will get!

According to your students, what are some of the biggest barriers that teachers face in supporting homeless students in the classroom?

There are Herculean tasks for our teachers if we are truly going to move the needle on the academic and life success of our students experiencing homelessness. Teachers must know their craft and have the ability to quickly assess academic needs, find ways to “fill in” any missing skills, and still challenge and excite our students. This includes sending the message that our students can be successful and will have opportunities for a future without homelessness. It may be planting the seed that college is in a kindergartner’s future or being the warm demander that will not let a student give less than his best on an essay in Senior English. We ask a great deal of our teachers, and do not always give them the support they need. I think the greatest barrier/challenge I hear from teachers is the lack of support and tools to meet the needs of their students. It is not enough, but uplifting our teachers by voicing our respect and acknowledging their work is a good beginning. We need ongoing research to really figure out what works and what is most critical in our instructional interventions. This is so difficult with students who move so frequently that typical research analyses may not work. Action research with teachers might be a vehicle to explore. We certainly need to listen to teachers and make them a more visible part of our work.

Can you share “success story” of how one teacher implemented his or her training when working with a student experiencing homelessness?

I remember observing an elementary school teacher who taught in a school located near the motels in one of our beach areas. During the off season, the not-so-nice places had low rates that some of our families could afford, so her school saw an influx of students over the winter. She was committed to providing for the needs of her students. Snacks and breakfast items that could be warmed in the classroom microwave were available for anyone who needed them. She worked consciously on creating a welcoming classroom environment and wove many cooperative learning activities into her lessons that supported the social-emotional needs of her students. The school also had a principal who advocated for students experiencing homelessness and provided state leadership with insights about our students’ needs. The LEA had a strong McKinney-Vento program, so students were sure to stay in the school despite the increasing hotel rates as the temperature increased in the spring. Seeing the support across for our students across all those levels makes a difference.

What do you most want teachers to know about their role supporting students experiencing homelessness?

Teachers can inspire students or demoralize them. They need to know what great power they hold in the lives of their students. We need to support our teachers by acknowledging their importance in our work, ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to serve our students, and doing a better job of reaching out to them and then listening to their voices as we navigate our future work.

States Pat, “As a side note, I feel that Virginia is unique in having its State Coordinator sited at an institute of higher education, and I thought I’d share a bit about how that came to be. The Office of the State Coordinator was mandated in the first authorization of the Stewart B. McKinney Act in 1987. Originally, VDOE housed the position. In 1995, the State Coordinator at the time left and the program had a very small budget of less than $400,000. Our state Superintendent was trying to decide how to proceed when he met James Stronge, a College of William and Mary faculty member, at a luncheon. Dr. Stronge had just written a book on promising practices in the education of homeless children and youth that had won a national award. National expertise in the backyard and Dr. Stronge’s entrepreneurial skills led to William and Mary assuming responsibility for the program for the 1995-96 academic year and naming the office Project HOPE with Dr. Stronge as the State Coordinator. That happens to be the year I started in the doctoral program under an OSEP grant. The faculty mentor assigned to me as part of the grant assisted Dr. Stronge in evaluating the status of Virginia’s homeless education program. That was my introduction to homeless education. For the next several years, I spent more and more time working in the HOPE office. In 2003, Dr. Stronge decided it was time for me to have the title of State Coordinator.”

Dr. Pat Popp

Virginia State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth