Homeless children find stability through School on Wheels

By Katie Stancombe
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – School was a struggle for Jessica Bryant*, who grew up in what she describes as a rough neighborhood on the northeast side of Indianapolis. The school was far from her home, making it difficult for her to get the help she needed with her schoolwork.

Thirty years later, Bryant had hopes that her son would receive a better education than she did. But as she watched him struggle through kindergarten at IPS School 14, she knew that something needed to be done to help him. But what, she didn’t know.

After giving birth to her son, Bryant lived with family until she was able to apply for an apartment of her own.

Seven years later, Bryant and her son live together in a low-income apartment complex in downtown Indianapolis funded by the Salvation Army, dedicated to those transitioning from homelessness to independence.  

Bryant is just one of many parents who have encountered homelessness during their lifetime and are struggling to find better educational and living opportunities for their children.

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Approximately 28 percent of the homeless population in Indianapolis is made up of families, according to an annual survey conducted by The Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention, and nearly a quarter are children. That means 5,200 children living within the city limits are without permanent housing and stability, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

In recent years, the number of homeless students enrolled in all Marion County schools has increased 69 percent from 2007 to 2013, racking up the largest number of homeless students in the state, according to data collected by the Department of Education.   

Without a stable environment to return to each day, homeless students face the challenge of focusing on schoolwork amidst the uncertainty of their home lives.

School on Wheels

One Indianapolis nonprofit organization is tackling that challenge head on by providing afterschool tutoring for homeless children in the area. School on Wheels serves more than 300 homeless students each year by providing one-on-one academic assistance and promoting educational advocacy.

Kelly Coker, School on Wheels vice president of programs, said that the organization does more than just help with academics – it also provides a level of security for students that was previously non-existent.  

“Kids thrive on schedules, stability and consistency. Those things are missing big time from their lives,” Coker said. “The nature of their lives and everything is changing all the time.”

Coker, who has spent her entire career in the nonprofit sector focusing on youth and poverty, said one of the most significant struggles for these students is the uncertainty of where they will stay – and for how long.

After visiting some of the facilities where her students live, both long and short term, Coker said she was surprised by their living conditions.

“What was eye opening for me is when you go into the environments where they’re living,” she said. “The sense of chaos, the number of people.”

Many of the children who attend School on Wheels tutoring live in emergency shelters, with a maximum stay of 90 days, while others bounce from couch to couch temporarily living with relatives or friends.

But with tutoring sessions held up to four times a week at 13 different locations, students are given a chance to plant roots in something solid for the first time in their lives. 

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Miss Ieva

As a single mother raising an 8-year-old in a downtown transitional living facility, Bryant was unsure of how to go about improving her son’s academics. Through the grapevine, she had briefly heard about a tutoring program called School on Wheels but didn’t know who to contact about it.

Then she met Miss Ieva.

Ieva Grundy has worked as a School on Wheels program coordinator for the past four years, because she knows how important a child’s education can be in saving their life.

“Anytime something traumatic happens in a child’s life it definitely impacts their education,” Grundy said. “It’s already rough growing up, period. And then in 45 to 60 days you’re in a whole new environment where you might not know anybody.”

Overseeing tutoring sessions at multiple locations, Grundy has worked with kids and parents alike, forming strong relationships with the families she serves.

On one afternoon at The Barton Place, chattering kids bounced around the comfortably furnished common room as the pleasant mannered woman settled at the front of the room.

She remained calm and collected as she addressed the room with authority. Gentle, but firm, she reprimanded two boys, sending them back to their tables as the afternoon tutoring session began.

As a part of her role as program coordinator, Grundy not only leads afternoon tutoring, but also acts as the liaison between teachers and parents in order to find out where each child needs the most help in their academics.

“I have high expectations of them. I set the bar high and they know that,” Grundy said of her students. “So they have nothing to do but reach for that.”

Grundy admits that though she holds high expectations for her students, it is nothing short of motherly love. 

“Kids want to please you,” she said. “If they love you and respect you, and they see that you love and respect them; all they want to do is please you – so why not try my best?”

Grundy was the first person Byrant talked to about signing up her son for the School on Wheels tutoring program. Almost three years later, Bryant’s son is striving in school.

Thanks to the help from Grundy, Bryant’s son was placed at the Center for Inquiry, a magnet school that ended up being a more encouraging learning environment for him.

Bryant said since joining the School on Wheels program, her son has accelerated in his studies.  

“He’s really progressing more than he did last year. His reading is getting better, his math, his comprehension, even his writing is getting a lot better,” Bryant said. “Since he has started this program, I can see the change.”

Bryant’s son isn’t the only student benefitting from the after-school tutoring. During the 2015-2016 school year, an annual survey conducted by School on Wheels showed that 428 students were tutored, a 60 student increase from the previous year.

In addition to Bryant seeing an improvement in her son’s academics, she is also seeing a change in his attitude.

“He’s more positive, he’s really striving,” Bryant said. “He really enjoys it and I do too.”

Katie Stancombe is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

*The name in this story has been changed for safety reasons.

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