By Kylee Fuhr, District Homeless Liaison, St. Lucie Public Schools, Florida
Educating our students is the key to breaking the cycle of homelessness. Moreover, by helping them achieve their postsecondary education goals, we can help create future leaders and change makers.
When I came into this role as the District Homeless Liaison for St. Lucie Public Schools— with 1,775 students identified as McKinney-Vento eligible – I was immediately given the opportunity to attend a national conference in Chicago. I learned so much about the benefits available to our high school students experiencing homelessness and came back to Florida the following week feeling refreshed. I started breaking up data reports, looking at the biggest concentration of McKinney-Vento students by each grade level. I was astonished to learn that we had 106 McKinney-Vento seniors registered, but we had never arranged a tour of our local institute of higher education, Indian River State College. I knew I had to figure out a way to get these students interested in college and aware of the benefits of pursuing their undergraduate education.
I reached out to our local State College to discuss a possible tour for these students and the Assistant Dean, Project Coordinator, and Administrative Assistant responded with enthusiasm. Over the next three months, we all worked diligently to create the “McKinney-Vento Opportunity Tour.” The college contacted local businesses to donate door prizes (ten $50 Walmart cards), 25 pizzas, wings, and drinks for lunch. Multiple vendors were present the day of our tour to hand out goodies and share helpful information. Other vendors helped with resume writing and enrolled students in health insurance, and others supplied hygiene kits and provided information on alternative vocational programs. The entire tour was supported exclusively by generous community resources.
I worked closely with the school-based contact and graduation coach at each of our seven high schools to help distribute the flyers to each of our eligible students, obtain permission slips, and disseminate information to the attendees as needed. Our district transportation department provided the three buses and drivers to pick up the students that morning, bring them to the college, and return them back to school in the afternoon.
Upon our arrival, the college President welcomed our students with an opening speech. Each program’s representative followed with a description of what they had to offer as far as course offerings, timelines, employment outcomes, and schedule flexibility within the semester. While they did give a brief overview of their Bachelor and Associates programs, they primarily focused on programs that could be completed in under a year with a high salary upon completion. Representatives from Student Affairs and Financial Aid explained the tuition exemption benefits available to McKinney-Vento eligible students in the state of Florida. Our host, Assistant Dean Cooper, asked questions about the presenters throughout the tour for the students to have a chance to win one of the gift cards and keep them engaged. The entire tour was just under three hours, including the lunch.
Most importantly, college staff took great care to be sensitive about our students’ homeless status. The college met with me beforehand to discuss at great length what should or should not be mentioned and how to refer to the students when presenting. Each program carefully tailored their presentations to our McKinney-Vento students without highlighting their experiences with homelessness. By gathering our district-wide students in one location for a shared experience, we created a palpable sense of community: they could physically see that there were 105 other seniors going through the same struggles in life.
The reception by the students was phenomenal! Many of them had not been planning on attending college, but after hearing that they could go to college without paying tuition, and that they could come out making over $15 an hour, they were motivated to carry on with their education. Before I returned to my office after the tour, two of the school-based contacts emailed me to tell me what a good time their students had had that morning at the college. They told me that their students came back with a new desire to attend college and break the cycle of homelessness by graduating from high school and obtaining their college degrees.
There was a significant change in momentum for our seniors experiencing homelessness after this tour. I no longer had to chase them down to give them information about the SAT/ACT fee exemption, tuition exemption, or FAFSA verification letters; they were contacting me for these items on their own. Those who had never considered college could now visualize themselves earning their AA, AS, or BS. While many of these students lived within five miles of this college, they had never set foot on the campus; now they could not wait to come back next August.
This tour was the best marketing I could have done for the McKinney-Vento Program. Upon our return to school, their energy was contagious. Teachers contacted me to request more information on the program after one of their McKinney-Vento seniors came back with a new desire to enroll in college. Other students, also struggling to find a place to live while finishing out their high school careers, reached out to me wanting more information on college. The passion the students brought back to their schools has already helped to increase attendance for next year. Juniors this year have reached out to me wanting to make sure they can attend the tour next year.
Six weeks from the end of school, I’m still not sure which of our senior tour members will be attending college this fall. But even if just one student enrolls, that’s more than enough to have made it worth it. We’re already getting a tour on the calendar for next year. “The McKinney Vento Opportunity Tour” genuinely lived up to its title by exposing these students to the educational opportunities that are available to them, and that can change the course of their lives.