116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Barbara Brinson and her family are “packed up like rats” in the two-bedroom town house she shares with her daughter and six grandchildren.
Her daughter — the children’s mother — Katrina Latrese Brinson, was murdered in February at a Cedar Rapids motel, leaving Barbara Brinson to take care of her six grandchildren who are in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
“I’m ruined financially right now,” Brinson said.
Brinson works construction from April to November, and in the offseason is on unemployment. She is trying to find a permanent job working a night shift so she can work when the kids are asleep.
When asked when she is able to sleep now, Brinson said, “Not too often.”
Her grandchildren are several of 600 Cedar Rapids students identified as inadequately housed or homeless. Another 300 students are in foster care.
‘One person can’t provide a support system to 900 students’
Students experiencing homelessness or in foster care are identified in different ways. Sometimes, a parent will reach out to inform the school of the family’s situation. Other times, the district receives referrals from community groups such as homeless shelters or social service agencies.
The district is working to expand the way services are delivered to students experiencing homelessness or in foster care.
Historically, one person has been tasked with building relationships and finding ways to meet the needs of these families in all 32 Cedar Rapids schools. This year, all that is changing. The role of engagement specialists in the schools is being expanded to include working with students who are experiencing homelessness or who are in foster care.
“One person can’t provide a support system to 900 students,” said Barb Hanson, culture and climate transformation specialist, who is leading this work. “It’s logistically impossible, so my hope is the new model will transform our support and ensure students are getting registered at the right schools, have transportation, school supplies, access to counseling or therapy if there’s a need for that, and remove any barriers so students have the opportunity to participate in activities like sports.”
The role of engagement specialists already includes a variety of duties including working with students having a hard day, assisting in classrooms, making phone calls to parents and visiting homes.
Marcy Roundtree, student and family outreach coordinator at Washington High School, has been working with Brinson to ensure transportation to and from school for the kids and to put her in touch with community partners that can help the family secure adequate housing, get clothes and school supplies and put food on the table.
“I embrace the whole family,” she said.
Roundtree said she is “optimistic” that expanding the role of engagement specialists will ensure students won’t fall through the cracks.
How the school district defines homelessness
The district defines a homeless person as someone without safe, adequate or consistent housing. Many students considered homeless are “doubled up” — staying with friends or family members because they were kicked out of their house, a family member lost employment or they financially can’t support themselves, Hanson said.
There is a “tremendous gap” on graduate rates and collage attainment for students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, Hanson said.
The four-year graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness is 62 percent, compared with 83 percent for non-homeless students for the 2018-2019 school year. Students experiencing homelessness made up over 13 percent of the English Language Learner program compared with about 7 percent of non-homeless students during the 2020-21 school year.
A substantial number of the families live in hotels or motels long-term, especially since the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho. Only a small percentage of people experiencing homelessness in the district are “unsheltered” or living on the street, Hanson said. If Hanson does find out a student or family is unsheltered, she connects them with groups that can help find them immediate housing.
Hanson wants students have consistency. If a family becomes displaced outside the attendance boundaries of the school the child was attending, transportation will be provided so the child still can go to the same school.
When a family works with an engagement specialist, the service is confidential. Hanson never wants a student to feel being labeled — but empowered instead.
“These kids are no different from any other kid — their circumstances are just different,” Hanson said. “If they have relationships and the opportunity to thrive, they will.”
Cedar Rapids students or families who need assistance can contact Barb Hanson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Comments: (319) 398-8411; email@example.com