Catherine Knowles is the Homeless Education Program Coordinator with Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves the city of Nashville, Tennessee and Davidson County. More than 82,000 students are currently enrolled in the district’s 73 elementary schools, 33 middle schools, 25 high schools, 18 charter schools, and eight specialty schools. Over 3,400 of those students have been identified as experiencing homelessness. Catherine has served in this role for 22 years, and also participates in many community working groups related to homeless issues. She is a member of both the local Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care Planning Council and Nashville’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project Steering Committee. Says Catherine, “I love that no day is ever the same.” 

What is one of the most helpful strategies you have learned in a homelessness-related training? 

I’ve been through lots of trainings, but I’d say the most helpful tip I have picked up along the way is the importance of offering professional development (PD) to school and community partners often, and in both large and small doses. For years, I employed a traditional PD model and held annual one-and-a-half-hour training sessions for my school building contacts, as well as school social workers and counselors. Although this approach fulfilled the compliance portion of training school staff, it rarely had the real impact I was looking for–which was to create understanding, compassion, empathy and “buy-in” in the importance of my work. As a homeless liaison, I need school staff and community partners to fulfill their required responsibilities to serve students experiencing homelessness–but in order for our district to fully meet the needs of our students and families, I also need these partners to want to be part of the solution, or to at least acknowledge the valuable role they can play in connecting families to services.

Resource: Training Resources

Accordingly, we have created a variety of professional development offerings ranging from a ten-minute McKinney-Vento 101 prerecorded PowerPoint to a 90-minute, in-person training more heavily focused on the social and emotional aspects of homelessness. Because our target audiences are so varied and school staff is so pressed for time, we also send out targeted emails with brief handouts and two-minute video clips, and we take advantage of every opportunity to speak casually with the building staff with whom we need to connect to better serve our students. We realize that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and we can have a significant impact through our informal interactions with staff and the community.

What is your most successful community partnership?

This seems a lot like asking a parent which child is the favorite…We have more than 25 community partners that support our work and our families in a variety of ways and we could not do the work we do without any one of them. Each partnership fulfills a vital need for the families that we serve and I consider all of them to be successful–but as I think about the newest partnerships and our most recent successes, I tend to highlight our partnership with Purposity because it is a great example of community members responding directly to the needs of their neighbors. We launched with Purposity in January 2018. At the time, Purposity was a text messaging service (now it is an app) that allowed individuals to sign up for a weekly text listing the needs of students and families experiencing homelessness. The response was OVERWHELMING! We quickly jumped from 250 to 500 community users, and we reached 1,000 users within the first year. This partnership enables us to assist families with brand new household items or bedding once they get housing of their own, or personal items that might otherwise take weeks to locate. For me, the partnership is such a great success story because it is about neighbors helping neighbors in need, as opposed to grant funds filling those gaps. The power of Purposity is the ability to connect generous donors with the real and immediate needs of others in our community.

One Purposity request that really generated a huge response from the community was a posting of needs for a high school senior who was experiencing homelessness and camping outdoors with his uncle in February. They had been in a local hotel for several years, but had to leave there when the uncle’s health declined and limited his ability to work. They could not go to any of the family shelters because the student was over 18, and neither the student nor the uncle felt comfortable at the adult shelter–so they camped and retreated to a relative’s home when weather was severe. Through our generous Purposity donors, they received sleeping bags, a cooler, campfire cookware, boots, jeans, coats, and other supplies needed for camping out in the elements.

Can you give us some examples of how you use data at the school district level to better serve students experiencing homelessness?

After 21 years of begging for more staff, I used data as a justification to add an additional full-time employee to our team this year! At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, we took a hard look at our data. Our rate of chronic absenteeism among students experiencing homeless was continuing to climb, and was more than double the rate for our housed students. Transportation is the most commonly cited barrier to regular attendance. With this information, I made a case for the need to hire one staff person to oversee transportation arrangements for our McKinney-Vento students, since we provide transportation to nearly 30% of our McKinney-Vento students to keep them stable in their “school of origin” (the school they attended when they were permanently housed, or the school in which they were last enrolled). We were thrilled to see a 7.2% decrease in chronic absenteeism among our McKinney-Vento students at the end of this year, and the district has committed to funding a part-time position in the Transportation Department so that we can work together to continue reducing absences related to transportation.

What do you consider your biggest barrier to helping homeless students?

From my perspective from the portable building that serves as my office at the Board of Education in the “It” city of Nashville, the biggest barrier to serving students and families experiencing homelessness is the current lack of affordable housing options in our community—and, relatedly, the difference between the HUD and McKinnney-Vento definitions of homelessness. For many years, I had a laser-like focus to my work and looked only at the educational component of the struggle my families faced, but I ultimately realized that I was not serving my students and their families well with such a narrow focus. Access to a free and appropriate education–along with school stability and services to promote school success–will always be the primary focus on my work, but I also recognize the importance of the educational system working alongside all the other systems of care that impact our students and families.

As a native Nashvillian, many parts of the city are unrecognizable to me—long gone are the affordable rentals and modest family homes that provided stable places to raise children. They have been torn down and replaced by tall skinnies with roof-top patios and often serve as weekend rentals to bachelorette parties or country music fans. I am not opposed to growth and prosperity, but I do think that in Nashville, it has come with a cost. To me, the cost seems to be hitting our most vulnerable families the hardest as they are pushed out of our community because they can no longer afford to live in the place they once called home.

Each year, about 80% of the students I serve are doubled-up–and therefore not eligible for HUD homeless services. As our community works to fully implement our Coordinated Entry System (CES), the gap between these definitions is problematic and confusing to families.  The strict HUD definition used by CES leaves the majority of my families outside of that system, and they become frustrated by that. It is hard for families facing a housing crisis to be told that they are not the “right kind of homeless” and cannot receive assistance from a program promoted as the entry point for homeless services.

I believe education leads to opportunity, and that opportunity is the best path out of poverty and homelessness. I speak that message to school staff, to the community, and to my students and families. It is this belief that guides my work and has kept me in the field for more than twenty years—it is also this belief that takes a hit and shakes a bit every time I talk with another family that has to seek education and opportunity someplace else because their community no longer has a place for them.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments as a McKinney-Vento liaison?

Without a doubt, the greatest sense of accomplishment I have felt comes from the state policy work I have participated in over the past two years. With the guidance and expertise of Patricia Julianelle, SchoolHouse Connection’s Director of Programs Advancement and Legal Affairs, we convened a community work group in November 2017 and had two successful pieces of legislation in the past two years. In 2018, the bill that passed allowed homeless unaccompanied youth to obtain birth certificates and state IDs without parental signatures. The bill that passed this spring requires all postsecondary institutions in the state to designate a specific point of contact for students experiencing homelessness. This state policy work will have an immediate and long-lasting effect on students experiencing homelessness throughout the state and it serves as a prime example of the tremendous impact homeless liaisons can have if we dare to work beyond the school walls.

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