Throughout the month of February, we hosted a series of conversations titled “Engaging and Re-engaging Students Experiencing Homelessness During the Pandemic,” to allow homeless liaisons a space to share their challenges and best practices to support students experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

Patricia Julianelle, SHC’s Senior Strategist for Program Advancement and Legal Affairs, sat down with Dedria Harrod of LAYC Career Academy in Washington, D.C., Nicole Sequeira of Independence School District in Independence, Missouri, and Fallon Stewart of the Maslow Project in Medford, Oregon to hear about what it’s been like to adapt to all of the changes that have occurred in the past year. 

Dedria Harrod, LAYC Career Academy, Washington D.C.

“Gaining a rapport with a student will open doors you didn’t know could be opened. It opens doors and it opens windows.”

Dedria Harrod stressed the importance of meeting students where they are during this difficult time. Throughout the pandemic, LAYC Career Academy provided basic necessities, such as food and clothing, to students who may be struggling financially, and connected students with other resources and referrals. Dedria and other staff at LAYC have also come to understand the importance of flexibility, especially given the fact that many of their students have had to start working, or have other responsibilities that may make a traditional school schedule difficult to follow. To help them stay up-to-date on their schoolwork, LAYC students are offered asynchronous learning and one-on-one tutoring. Dedria also discussed her school’s dedication to individualized learning plans for each student to help students move toward their individual goals and accommodate varying needs. It takes a dedicated staff to achieve such a supportive community, and Dedria acknowledged that school staff are struggling during this time as well. She noted that LAYC was prioritizing self-care not only for students, but also for teachers and administrators, and that she felt a supportive and understanding work environment is part of what makes it possible to persevere through the unique challenges of the past year.

Nicole Sequeira, Independence School District, MO

“We would always include fliers with any food distribution that we did that had a list of all of our family school liaisons as well as other community resources.”

As a McKinney-Vento Liaison, Nicole Sequeira prioritizes building relationships with students. She talked about how reaching out to potentially disconnected students and their families through emails and phone calls helped her school district keep track of individual needs. She also stressed the significance of community partners in the effort to engage and re-engage students experiencing homelessness, including individual shelters, the Boys and Girls Club, and other community organizations, all of which have provided support and resources during this time. She also mentioned programs that individual schools are developing, such as after-school tutoring and assistance with virtual learning platforms. Programs and community partnerships help students experiencing homelessness maintain a feeling of connectedness and belonging at their schools, even if they are not able to be physically present.

Fallon Stewart, the Maslow Project, Bend, OR

“What we have found works is coming into the conversation with unconditional positive regard.”

The Maslow Project, serving as the official McKinney-Vento Liaison for several school districts in Oregon, approached social support similarly. Fallon Stewart emphasized the importance of “unconditional positive regard” when reaching out to students. She talked about the many reasons why a student may not be attending school, whether online or in person, and mentioned the value of discussing basic needs first when talking to a student before asking about school attendance. One creative strategy the Maslow Project uses to encourage students to connect with staff is to provide an incentive, like meeting a student outdoors for lunch or coffee and then going over a packet of information with them.

Prioritizing identification, basic needs, and community partnerships are some of the themes that emerged from these conversations. Clearly, homeless liaisons have to be flexible, creative, and meet the students where they are — especially during the pandemic. We are so grateful to Dedria, Nicole, and Fallon for sharing their creative strategies to help students experiencing homelessness stay engaged in school.

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