NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

Nearly two-thirds of New Orleans charter schools have teamed up with NOLA Public Schools to access a federal grant program that helps provide homeless children with supplies, ranging from uniforms to basic paper and pencil, counseling, and a variety of services to meet their educational needs. 

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act “ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth,” according to the NOLA Public Schools district. Late last month, the Orleans Parish School Board approved the $322,271.00 grant, which they are eligible for each of the next three school years.

The 54-school charter group that plans to participate — called the “Orleans Consortium” —  is working with the district, which submitted the grant application on the consortium’s behalf. 

The group was formed before COVID-19. But as the virus has wreaked economic hardship across the country and particularly in tourism-dependent New Orleans, the funding may be coming at a critical time.

Several programs meant to curb the economic fallout from the pandemic have expired. Federal and state freezes on evictions recently came to an end, as did a $600-per-week federal supplement to state unemployment benefits. 

Covenant House Executive Director Jim Kelly told The Lens last week that his shelter has never had more children.

“In November we hit 162 youth and children. That was the highest in our history at that point,” he said. “Yesterday we hit 220 young people. And I expect with evictions and with unemployment funds going away — or at least being dramatically dropped or lowered — we could be at 250 by the fall,” he said.

Kelly said Covenant has been working with NOLA Public Schools’ Homeless and Parental Involvement Liaison Ayesha Buckner, whom he praised. “I just want to give her a shoutout.”

“She’s helping us to make sure our kids have the resources they need, have the right supplies,” he said, noting she’d recently helped some children complete a required school transfer. 

Buckner participates in Covenant’s annual “sleep out” fundraiser, Kelly said, where volunteers sleep on the street for a night to simulate experiencing homelessness. Buckner was not immediately available for comment. 

The funding will reimburse charter schools for a broad range of expenses — including school supplies, counseling, excess transportation costs, medical referrals and professional development for staff — that ultimately benefit students experiencing homelessness.

In a traditional district, the McKinney-Vento Act protects a student’s right to attend their home zone school even if they move to a homeless shelter or other temporary residence, out of their attendance zone. In New Orleans, where students can attend schools across the city, the act would guarantee they receive transportation to their school, though most schools already provide busing across the city. 

School districts apply to the Louisiana Department of Education for the funding. In the past all districts, including small charter schools — many of which are legally considered their own districts, or local education agencies — would compete against traditional districts for the grant. 

The department’s State Homelessness Coordinator, Antiqua Hunter, said the program has always been open to all LEAs. There is no threshold a district must meet to apply, but larger districts may have had an easier time demonstrating need, she said in an interview Friday.

“It just came down to a quality application,” she said.

Although New Orleans charters teamed up this time, the state also created new application categories to break down student-need size — something that may give smaller districts an easier shot at demonstrating need. 

“No longer is a district with 10 students competing against one with 200 students,” she said. “We took away that barrier.”

But the state now has six application categories based on the number of homeless students a local education agency has. The smallest is up to 50 students, and the largest for districts with 1,001 homeless students or more. Orleans was one of two districts to apply in the largest category. Both received the grant. 

Homeless services would join an umbrella of services the district has in essence re-centralized in recent years, including enrollment and expulsion oversight. 

It’s unclear how many charter schools attempted to apply for that money on their own before — which requires an application, specific liaison for homeless students, and more — but Hunter confirmed some charters had received it on their own. 

For example this year, International High School of New Orleans was one of two districts to apply in the smallest category. IHS received a grant, the other applicant did not. 

Crescent City Schools, which runs three charter schools, is part of the group. Chief Operations Officer Chris Hines said it will help the schools provide services.

“We do have a number of homeless students in each of our three schools,” he said. “Working with the district allowed us to access these funds and not just for our students but other students across the city.” 

Hines said the district carried a lot of the weight in the application process.

He started working with the district in 2017 after inquiring about the grants with the state. At the time, a state employee told him, “the greater the impact the more likely an LEA or consortium of LEAs will be awarded an allocation.”

Hunter emphasized there was no specific threshold, but that it came down to the quality of applications. 

The funds also help schools purchase services and supplies that a student experiencing homelessness needs to continue their education. 

“It can be things that are directly in schools it also can mean things that are outside of schools,” he said.

As the school year begins online in New Orleans, those dollars could also help students access technology for virtual learning, he said.

That’s something Jim Kelly and his team are thinking about too, operating a shelter where families are coming and going during the pandemic.

“We’ve got this issue to look at from three perspectives. One from a head start perspective, two from kindergarten, first-, second-grade level and three from high school and college. We’ve got mothers and children,” he said. 

He said his team is working on the best solution for residents of Covenant and is leaning toward hosting virtual learning. 

“We’re still figuring things out. Our strong leaning is to do it virtually. We are setting up our staff to support students,” he said. “We think that will be the most stabilizing and the best thing.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...