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District didn't want us to visit this struggling Seattle school

Lowell Elementary School sits across from million-dollar houses on a quiet street in Capitol Hill. But this school serves some of the poorest children in the city.

The percentage of homeless students in Seattle Public Schools has doubled in the past five years. As of spring, 7 percent of the student population lacked a permanent address. That number is much smaller at some schools, and much larger in others.

At Lowell, 20 percent of students were homeless at last count.

Fourth-grader Matthew Hicks said that despite those high numbers, being without stable housing still carries a stigma among children at Lowell.

"The goal is to not let them know that you live in a shelter, so they can’t really judge you about it," he said. "When they ask you where you live, you just say, 'I don’t wanna talk about it.'"

Nearly three-quarters of homeless families with children in King County are people of color. Like more than one-third of homeless families in the region, Hicks and his younger sister, second-grader Mariah, are black.

The school district wouldn’t let me visit classrooms at Lowell. But it was easy to find students like Matthew and Mariah at Mary’s Place, the shelter where they were living.

Lowell is the assigned elementary school for all of the downtown homeless shelters. That means as shelters swell with families who’ve lost affordable housing, so does the population of homeless students at Lowell.

Tiffany Hicks, Matthew and Mariah's mother, said the kids living at shelters go to school with a lot on their minds: "You got to go through the shelter life, and then you go to school with all that stuff inside: 'Why are we still here? Why do we still have to go through this communal eating? Why don’t we have our own stuff?' And they're bitter, and they’re hurt, and they’re angry."

Hicks saw how those feelings manifest at school when she got hired as a recess monitor at Lowell last spring.

"It's just a big mess," she said. "It really is. And it's sad because students are not getting what they need."

Parents and staff report children regularly storming out of class to wander the halls. They say there are brawls on the playground, the school bus and in the cafeteria. And they describe classrooms in a state of near-anarchy.

Matthew Hicks said he gets picked on a lot, and that turning to adults at the school is often a dead end.

"They’ll be like, 'Yeah, yeah, you guys gotta settle it. You’re fourth-grade now. You guys gotta do it by yourselves.' Do it by ourselves? We’re still little. I can’t do that!"

Tiffany Hicks said the school isn’t even close to having the resources to handle students’ tremendous needs, which was hard to watch as a school employee. She quit after a couple of months.

"If I had known that it was that dysfunctional I would have never agreed to do it, because those kids, they deserve better than that," she said.

Staff turnover is high at Lowell. By one count, 15 teachers and administrators have left since January.

Na’Ceshia Holmes is among them. She was the assistant principal at Lowell, someone parents and staff told me was “the heart of the school.” She said she was also the only person of color in the school administration.

"I like to say Lowell has everything worth fighting for," Holmes said. "That’s where the most important work and need was in education."

Lowell has a medically-fragile population, visually-impaired students, many special education classrooms, and a large population of students still learning English.

But Holmes says working there turned into a struggle. She said the amount of uncertainty in the lives of homeless students makes them feel powerless.

"And so when they arrive into the classroom, they bring all that angst with them, and for the most part don’t come in with those coping skills to kind of get them to a place where they can access the learning," Holmes said.

She said many kids who’ve been through that much trauma can be easily set off, and most teachers lack the training to prevent and deescalate those eruptions. Holmes said there was an endless stream of upset children in her office. And only one of her.

"Teachers are asking — begging — for more training on how you work with students to teach them coping strategies and self-regulation strategies," Holmes said. " That’s a hard place for a teacher to be, when you can recognize what the kids need, but you don’t have the skills to give them that."

Like all high-poverty schools, Lowell qualifies for extra funding, primarily federal Title I dollars. But the school gets little special attention or funding to reflect its high homeless population. Last year there was just one half-time counselor for the whole school. There is a social worker, but no school psychologist. A behavioral intervention specialist was hired last year, and parents and staff praise his work.

Then, he told me in an interview, his job was phased out without explanation.

Many parents, students and staff members complain that the district should have hired a principal for the school who was skilled in working with such a vulnerable population.

The Lowell principal, Colleen Stump, declined multiple requests for an interview. And district spokeswoman Kim Schmanke refused to respond to the numerous allegations about the school. Instead, she issued this statement by email:

“The district can’t discuss personal student information or incidents. We have a commitment to creating the best educational experience for all students. That includes building positive student and teacher relationships, trauma-informed practices and creating welcoming environments for all students and families.”

Seattle Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Stephen Nielsen said he was not aware of the staff exodus at Lowell. He said the district does what it can to serve homeless students, but money is tight.

"The headline is, obviously, we don't have enough money to serve the needs of the kids," Nielsen said. "We don't have enough money from the state. We certainly don't have enough money from the feds. And we want to do a very good job in serving these students, because we want them to get an education."

Nielsen said the district trains staff to work with students on social and emotional issues, and that there is a team of staff dedicated to meeting McKinney-Vento, the federal law that mandates equal access for homeless students.

"We have eight people who work across the district to go in and help the homeless students in all kinds of needs that they may have, and to integrate them into a meaningful academic experience where they can improve their student achievement," Nielsen said.

Teachers and parents at Lowell, and other schools with large homeless populations in the district, said they haven’t seen much evidence of that work.

The lack of services affects all students at the school. Marina Gray, who's black, and her husband Steve, who's white, decided to move their young son from a private school to Lowell, their neighborhood school.

"We found an incredibly, beautifully diverse community of learners," Gray said. "Different abilities, different cultures and backgrounds and races. And we loved it."

Things started going downhill, Gray said, after the district redrew school boundaries that had previously dispersed students from homeless shelters more evenly, including to John Hay Elementary, a predominantly white, well-off school on Queen Anne. Shifting those high-needs students to Lowell "is not an apples-to-apples situation," Gray said, because Lowell already had so many high-needs learners compared to John Hay.

Gray became president of the Lowell PTSA and advocated for more resources for the school and its homeless population. Few resources came, Gray said.

In the past two years, her son became the target of bullying. He suffered an eye laceration, a concussion, and a death threat from another child.

"I don't blame that child," Gray said. "That child was unsupported. I don't blame his teacher, because she was also unsupported. I do blame the school and the district for not providing the resources. We know already kids come in with this trauma. We really do need to provide appropriate levels of support for them. For everyone."

Gray and her husband pulled their son from Lowell at the end of last school year. Many other parents have done the same. Gray said that's sad, because the same parents who had the resources to leave were previously investing in the success of Lowell's most vulnerable students.

Louisiana State University Assistant Professor of Education Kerri Tobin studies the effects of homelessness on school children. She said it’s critical for schools to do whatever they can to help homeless students.

"The problem is, in the United States we don’t have a lot of other social supports," Tobin said. "We don’t have social policy that would take care of students’ needs, and schools have really become one-stop service centers. There’s a direct and obvious impact on school outcomes, so there’s a direct and obvious connection for schools to address the issue."

Tobin said that while budgets are typically tight, there are inexpensive steps schools can take. The biggest is training staff in how to work with students experiencing trauma — and how young brains work if they’ve been through intensely painful and scary experiences.

"A lot of our students could probably be qualified as having something akin to PTSD," Tobin said.

Other steps include working alongside homeless service providers and having staff visit shelters early in the morning to see how much a homeless student has gone through before they’ve even stepped on the school bus. Schools can create support groups for students and incorporate homelessness into curricula, which may help other children develop empathy and cut down on bullying.

For Holmes, the district’s budget is not the limiting factor. She grew up poor and black in Seattle, and said what is happening at Lowell — the so-called benign neglect of a highly vulnerable population — is just symptomatic of the racism and classism in well-off, mostly white Seattle.

"It seems like the same people who continue to not have a voice," Holmes said. "The same people who continue to get what they ask for."

Holmes said the district doesn't go nearly far enough to support schools that need the most help — like one where one-fifth of students have no permanent address. And she said if help comes at the expense of affluent schools, that’s okay.

"It’s time to have some real conversations with everybody that’s impacted, and come up with a clear action plan," she said. "And be willing to piss some people off and hurt some feelings. Everybody’s not going to be happy in this scenario."

Correction 10/18/17: The Queen Anne elementary school cited in the story was incorrectly identified; it was John Hay Elementary.

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