I would like to share my last Walking in the Shoes experience of the school year. As you know, this year has been focused on spending time with students with unique circumstances.
This particular experience was with a loving, energetic young student named Jeighlen, a kindergartener at Birchwood Elementary… and someone who happens to be homeless.
My experience also included spending time with Jamie, who is a single-mom and student at Bellingham Technical College, Sarah Simpson, one of our district’s Homeless Support Coordinators, as well as some of the wonderful Birchwood staff who work with Jeighlen.
My day started out at 8 a.m. in Ms. Sadie Miller’s class. (Actually, I was supposed to arrive at 7:30 a.m., but I was late! Sorry again, Ms. Miller.)
I went outside to play tag with Jeighlen and other students before school began. Later, when we were at our desks at 8:30, I asked Jeighlen a question and he told me to be quiet, as the teacher was starting to share the plan for the day. Then, I started to take notes on my laptop, but I realized that wasn’t a great idea because Jeighlen couldn’t concentrate on Ms. Miller, and he kept trying to type, so I put that away and relied on pen and paper.
At 8:40, Jeighlen and I went into the motor room with Andrea James (Ms. Andy), and students got to shoot baskets while on a balancing board. When Jeighlen made a basket, Ms. Andy gave him a huge smile and a big hug. She really demonstrated our belief that all children should be loved!
We were back in Ms. Miller’s class at 9 a.m. for carpet time and Jeighlen taught me how to sit “criss-cross apple sauce.” We sang songs and Ms. Miller played guitar. Jeighlen gave me his sticker he earned for doing well in the motor room and said “Here, you earned this!” He then looked at my ID badge around my neck and asked what it said. I told him “Dr. Baker,” and he asked “You’re a doctor?”
At recess, we played more of his favorite: tag! We then had lunch and Jeighlen said “chocolate milk is the best!” Since I tend to agree with that sentiment, I didn’t quite have the heart to tell him that chocolate milk is going away next year (except for maybe special occasions). Quick tangent: having white milk or water as drinking options for our kids is much healthier. I know it will be missed (by me, too), but after we completed our food services audit with consultant Chef Ann, we have learned we can take many steps between now and 2019 (when we get our central kitchen built and running) to improve healthy and less-processed offerings for students, like serving breakfast in the classroom (more on that later) and limiting our beverages options to low/no sugar drinks. I’m sure this news will impact you like it did me: you’re a little bummed out, it’ll take some getting used to, but you know it’s the right decision to make for our kids.
Ok. Back to my day.
After lunch, I met with his mom, Jamie, who is a strong, courageous woman who had a housing crisis right when the school year started. She started our conversation out by telling me that Birchwood was the best school ever and praised the staff for their amazing support of Jeighlen. Jamie told me how Birchwood staff has helped identify sensory issues and mental health support that her son needed and how it has really impacted and helped her son. “Birchwood has become my rock,” she said. Jamie takes classes Monday through Thursday at BTC, so she brings her son to school, then goes to her classes, then picks him up.
Jeighlen and Jamie had a housing crisis when school began in August, and luckily, got connected with one of our Homeless Support Coordinators, Sarah Simpson, who has helped them immensely. Currently, Jamie and Jeighlen live in the county, but they found out that they have to leave their current place in a few weeks, and mom is worried about the upcoming transition and whether their move will mean transferring Jeighlen to a different school. That’s hard given their strong emotional ties to Birchwood. She tells me that the number of challenges she and Jeighlen face every day and week are substantial. She says food is so expensive, and she relayed that they lost power for several days during a power outage earlier this year and that it was devastating because of the amount of food they lost in their fridge and freezer. She told me Jeighlen loves fresh fruit, but it’s hard to afford it.
Earlier this year, she had to make a decision to either pay for their storage unit or car, and she had to pick the car because she needed transportation. That meant losing all of their belongings in the storage unit, which they are now trying to get back. She also continuously asks herself if she should stick with her education at BTC and if it’s worth the struggle or go back to a low-wage job (and possibly be stuck indefinitely). Financial aid only pays for three quarters, but she attends school year round, which leaves her $2,000 short. Her books for this quarter were over $700, so for many classes, she’s going without and trying to Google content to learn what she can.
Jamie tells me that there are some bright spots: Jeighlen received a free bed, thanks to the district and the Bellingham Schools Foundation. She said this is the first time Jeighlen has ever had his own bed! The Opportunity Council has also been a great partner, but resources are limited due to great demand in our area.
I spent time with Sarah Simpson, our homeless coordinator, and she said “what Jamie needs is a boost,” meaning enough money for a rental deposit and sometimes first and last months’ rent. Sarah pointed out that because we live in a college town, many college students have parents to help with down payments and/or to consign for rentals. Jamie doesn’t have that, and it can make for an uneven “playing field” in securing a rental. She said this pushes people out to the county, which impacts transportation issues.
In the meantime, Jamie is on a section eight housing waiting list, along with 900 other people. Jamie has been on that list for two years.
I asked Jamie and Sarah what we could do better, as a district, to help families like hers. They both agreed that having staff who know where to send people and how to access resources helps. (This is one big reason why I do Walking in the Shoes!) Jamie said it took a lot of courage to come into the district office and ask for help. She got hooked up with our homeless coordinators, who she says have been an incredible resource for her and Jeighlen.
A few other reflections to share about my day include time and conversations I had with those who work at Birchwood. I was blown away by the care, love and respect our staff have for students, each other and families.
A quote from mom: “Ms. Sadie Miller is so AWESOME. She has so much patience and is so loving to Jeighlen and all her students. I really feel safe knowing that Jeighlen is with her.”
Ms. Miller told me that there are ways we can help support homeless students, families and staff. One is by keeping homeless students in the same school so they have stability in their relationships. She also said having adult mentors for homeless students has helped, and she hopes we can do more of that in the future. Ms. Miller said offering Breakfast in the Classroom (which we started this spring at some of our title elementary schools, including Birchwood) is really important because it’s for all students, not just some, and that students no longer have to choose between before-school recess or eating. She also stressed that always providing a welcoming, safe environment for students and their families is crucial. Ms. Miller says she tries to honor where students are. For example, a student may not be getting a good night’s sleep if they are sleeping in their car, so if they need a rest during the day, that’s ok.
Principal Matt Whitten really models loving and caring for our students, too. One thing he said that really resonated with me was “You solve the problems you have control over.” Matt knows we can’t fix every challenge, but we can make sure our kids are loved by showing compassion and ensuring that our staff understands the situations of our kids and families.
Matt says that many of our homeless families are embarrassed and/or don’t make it known that they need help; many are not making connections like Jamie, though he wishes they would. He said in the big picture, we need more affordable housing for families. He says right now, families are “couch-surfing,” sleeping in motels, cars or going out to the county. He says full time counselors have been a great investment and wishes we had more access to mental health counseling for students.
Then, I’m not kidding, in the middle of our conversation, I look out the window: a horse is walking down the street. Matt says “Yes, that’s Birchwood!”
Back to Matt.
He points to great steps we’ve taken to help kids in need, like fifth grade strings for all students and increasing high-quality after-school offerings at Birchwood (though Matt wishes there were more!) like mountain biking, tennis club, choir and garden club.
In conclusion, it’s incredible what we (Birchwood and the district) mean to Jamie and Jeighlen. Birchwood provides a steady piece in their lives, and I felt very proud of our staff and homeless coordinators and for everyone who helps advocating for Jeighlen and others like him. Jamie and her son are amazing, and I so appreciate their willingness to talk and meet with me.
I’m still left with a big question, though…How do we advocate for housing for our kids? I think it really will take the whole community to help our kids and their families.
Thanks again to all at Birchwood and to all our staff throughout the district and our community partners for the incredible work delivering upon The Promise.
And Jeighlen – we all look forward to watching you learn and grow, and with the support of this district and community, ensuring you have a wonderful future ahead of you.