By Terri Darr McLean
The morning bells have not yet rung in the halls of Newport Independent schools, but a line has already begun to form outside of Danny Burridge’s door in the district office. A stack of messages and an ever-growing to-do list wait on the inside.
Burridge is just a few weeks into his position as the new homeless education coordinator for the 1,700-student school district in northern Kentucky. With at least 11 percent of those students considered homeless – lacking a stable, adequate, nighttime residence – he has had to hit the ground running.
PHOTO: Newport Independent Schools’ Homeless Education Coordinator Danny Burridge talks with a family.
“Prioritizing the needs of people is one of the hardest things to do,” Burridge said. But, he quickly added, “getting them in school is the most important thing.”
Eliminating the barriers that keep homeless children out of school is the top priority for Burridge and others in similar positions around the state. Federal law requires every school district in the United States to ensure that homelessness does not stand in the way of a child receiving an education.
In Kentucky, where more than 35,000 school-age children meet the definition of homeless, all school districts have a person designated to work with the homeless population, often the director of pupil personnel or enrollment coordinator. But only 17 have full-time homeless education coordinators like Burridge whose positions are funded with a federal McKinney-Vento grant.
“Having someone own this program is our greatest asset,” said Newport school board Chairwoman Ramona Malone. “A lot of these (homeless) kids come to school with so much on their minds. It really impedes their ability to focus if they’re worried about where they’re going to sleep when they leave school ... and they can’t learn. A lot of emotional issues come with that situation as well. Now, our kids come to school without those things on their minds, and what will happen is those barriers will be removed.”
Newport pupil personnel director Mike Wills, along with the youth service center and family resource coordinators in the district, began to notice an increase in homeless students a couple of years ago. The economic downturn and high rate of home foreclosures, coupled with such ongoing issues as domestic abuse, drug abuse and joblessness, are among the contributing factors, he said.
To better meet the needs of the growing homeless population, the district applied for – and was awarded – a $50,000-a-year grant for two years to hire a coordinator for the expanded homeless education program named NSTEP – Newport Service Tools and Empowerment Project.
Burridge, who recently returned to his native Cincinnati after working for the Volunteer Missionary Movement in El Salvador for six years, was an “answer to our prayers,” Wills said. In addition to his experience working with people living in extreme poverty, he is fluent in Spanish, a big help in working with the growing Hispanic component of Newport’s homeless population.
“He has seen the need. He’s reaching out, he’s doing it right away, and those are the things we had to have,” Wills said.
Burridge’s responsibilities include identifying homeless students in the district – a task that is not always easy. “A lot of times people don’t think of themselves as being homeless,” he said.
People such as a young mother who, along with her daughter, had been “bouncing around” for a while, first moving in with her own mother and now bunking at a cousin’s house, he said. Or the teen who is “couch surfing” at friends’ houses because he no longer lives in the care of a parent or guardian.
Once Burridge identifies the students – and verifies that they are in the Newport Independent district – he acts quickly to get them in school. That frequently involves connecting the students and their families with social service agencies that can help with finding appropriate housing, obtaining health care, buying school supplies and uniforms, and making sure immunizations are up to date.
“We match them up with the services to make sure they’re ready to learn when they come to school,” he said.
It also frequently involves working within the school system. For example, NSTEP works closely with the graphic design department at Newport High School, which produces T-shirts and polo shirts that meet the district’s dress code requirements. NSTEP buys the shirts to give to students to wear to school.
“We have to eliminate the barriers so students can come to school ready to learn, properly clothed, properly housed, properly fed,” Burridge said.
He continues working with the students and their families after enrollment, making referrals for resources. He’s planning monthly workshops with parents of homeless children, dealing with issues such as family literacy, homework help, conflict mediation and other skills aimed at helping the children be good students.
“In general, once a student is on the homeless list, I would be the one to attend to any problem or need they might have that relates to their homelessness,” Burridge said. “I try to be a human resource to the families as well – someone they can come to talk to who will listen, who can encourage them, give them advice.”
As the first homeless education coordinator at Newport Independent, Burridge admits he is learning on the job but insists he’s not deterred.
“It’s challenging work but it’s work that matters.” he said. “I feel lucky to be part of a school district that’s committed to doing the best for our kids and ensuring that they’re going to learn.”
— McLean is a writer from Lexington