I-TEAM | Children stuck on the fault line in education

Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 6:54 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - They are the youngest victims of the homeless crisis in Augusta. Young, helpless faces that are tired, weary, and in need of rest, shelter, and food. And in need of an education.

“They say they want to go home a lot, and they’re not understanding that we don’t have a home right now,” says one mother with four children, including a one-month-old infant we found living in a broken-down car trying to access a homeless shelter downtown.

She admits her elementary-aged son is missing school simply because of a lack of transportation to get him there. Not because she does not see the need for his education... it is an agonizing case of dominoes falling.

“We know just two days a month of absences can impact a child’s ability to learn to read,” says Dr. Kim Barker, an Assistant Professor at the College of Education at Augusta University.

Children are stuck on a fault line in education and falling into the gaps.

For six months, our ITEAM has investigated the causes behind Augusta’s skyrocketing homeless population. We have been telling the stories behind the faces on the street, from mental illness and addiction to a lack of affordable housing and young people aging out of foster care.

Now, we introduce you to another face on the streets, the youngest and most innocent with nowhere to go and no way to school. To get a complete picture of the crisis for our children, we partnered with USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism for this story.

During our investigation, we wanted to know how homelessness was affecting our youngest and most innocent segment of the population, our local children. Our investigation found the number of homeless kids in school has decreased despite the explosion of homelessness across our city.

It does not make a lot of sense - are there fewer homeless kids or fewer homeless kids in the classroom?

“I hate to talk about it because I get so emotional.”

The only feeling other than numb from the cold is desperation for the mother we will call Alessia. We met her inside the broken-down SUV where she was living with her four children ages eight, three, one, and her newborn, only one-month-old. Alessia admits the family has been sleeping in the SUV.

“My biggest fear...my kids…. I do not want to be away from them.”

That fear keeps her from telling her son’s teacher the reason he misses class. The family has been homeless for about one to two months. The dominoes started falling last spring.

Alessia says she’s a victim of domestic violence. The ITEAM obtained her 911 call for help while pregnant with her fourth child. She says the pregnancy was high-risk because she had a lot of complications.

911: “Police, fire, or ambulance?”

Alessia: “I have someone over here beating on me, and I am pregnant.”

911: “What’s the description?”

Alessia: “Getting out of my (beep) face. Get out of my (beep face).”

Alessia recalls when the blows kept coming. “I was at the hospital (having my baby) when my lights were disconnected... It is very difficult having a newborn in a vehicle with the water bottles; don’t have a way to warm them at times, so I have to give them to her as is.”

Alessia shows us all the attempts she’s made to get help for the family. “These are all the calls I made.” The ITEAM counted 22 calls that day in her call log. She says no one who answered could help her.

“They are pointing to each other. They are all directing to the other.”

On this night, Augusta is under a winter weather advisory. The temperature is dropping, and snow is on the way. Navigating through the complex maze of non-profits and government agencies designed to help people in need is confusing, to say the least. Daunting for someone who just became homeless … nearly impossible with four young children.

First, Alessia needs a background check before she and her four children can get into a shelter. But, the sheriff’s office closed early due to the weather. Next, she needs a room, but nobody is answering the shelter.

The ITEAM did answer the phone. Texts and calls to sources...several roadblocks, hours later, and a clean background check in hand...We walk them through the doors at the only shelter in Augusta that accepts families, the Center of Hope.

Dr. Gregory Rhodes is the Director of the Center of Hope.

“We are probably averaging 16-17 kids each night.”

He tells us they are school-aged children.

Liz Owens: “Why do you think that population has increased?”

Rhodes: “Because of the evictions. At least two of the families the parent suffers from mental illness and that has increased their risk of being homeless.”

Estimates show the overall homeless population has skyrocketed 150 percent in Augusta since last school year... But we discovered that surge is not reflected in Richmond County schools. While the homeless population increased, homeless kids in the classroom decreased by more than 65 percent.

The ITEAM spent months analyzing attendance data. We found 456 elementary school students were homeless last school year. This year? Only 154. So, where are all the homeless kids?

As we witnessed firsthand, getting shelter was a challenge for homeless parents like Alessia. But, getting her son to school is a whole other mountain. She says her 8-year-old son is a whiz at math, but he needs help in other areas like reading. The second-grader missed a week of school in January because Alessia had no way to take him when her car broke down, and she struggled to get him to Sue Reynolds Elementary School every morning.

Liz: “Have they said anything about bringing a bus here?”

Alessia: “No, nobody said anything about a bus it’s just mandatory that he goes to school every day.”

Alessia says she only finally tells his teacher they are homeless once she learns about the McKinney Vento Act. It is a federal program that provides funds to school districts to ensure homeless kids get equal access to education.

As soon as a student is identified, the Richmond County School District assigns a homeless liaison to work with families to address learning barriers like transportation. But, ten days after Alessia says her son needs a ride to school, there is still no bus coming to the shelter to get her son. The homeless liaison from the school district says it will take a while to work out bus transportation, so instead, she offers a cab voucher. She withdrawals the offer when Alessia tells her she does not have car seats.

“It’s a revolving door of dead ends,” says Alessia’s friend Ayesha. They worked together before life sucker-punched the young mother.

“She has four small kids you telling keep telling her that her son has to go to school. Her son doesn’t get dismissed from school until 3:45 p.m. She has to be back here at four o’clock to still have a place for her and her kids to sleep at night. How does that work?

Ayesha drives her friend’s son to school when her work schedule allows for it. Lately, it has not. The second-grader missed several more days of school last week.

“We know just two days a month of absences can impact a child’s ability to learn to read.” Dr. Kim Barker is an Assistant Professor at the College of Education at Augusta University. “When they are eight about years old in third grade is when they need to make the switch to reading to learn... If they can’t read that then they just fall further and further behind.”

Dr. Barker says Alessia’s son is at a pivotal age in school. What he learns or does not learn now could have lifelong consequences.

“Statistically we know that kids who are not able to read on grade level by third grade are less likely to healthy adults more likely to be unemployed and more likely to be incarcerated in their life.”

Back at the shelter, Alessia has been here now with her four children for 28 days. She says she sees her oldest child carrying the burden. “He doesn’t ask any questions. He just asks if I’m alright. That bothers me, too. He says ‘are you okay?’ I just say ‘yeah.’”

For Ayesha, it is frustrating to see the giant cracks in the very system where so much taxpayer money locally, statewide, and federally goes to fund programs meant to help people like Alessia. “What do we do wait for a news story to come out and say this young mother snapped it was too much for her? …. We failed her, and we failed her kids.”

Many calls and texts to sources again, and 22 days after entering the shelter, Alessia finally got car seats, and her son has a ride to school. It is difficult not to feel frustrated documenting the hurdles families face while trying to find housing after recently losing it.

Alissa has job offers, but she cannot work until she has childcare. Work from home is not an option because she does not have a home to work from, and she cannot get home until she can work.

In the end, those who suffer the long-term consequences are the kids. Our investigation of Children on the Faultline continues next week.

This is the first investigative article that was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Data Fellowship.

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