Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is was recently scrapped without an alternative proposal.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

Editor’s note, Jan. 24, 2018: This story was updated with more recent information on Denver’s proposal for teacher housing that emerged after the story was published. 

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

Free for All

A benefit of free lunch for all: fewer students get repeatedly suspended, new study suggests

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Students eat lunch at the Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy in Detroit.

Allowing an entire school to eat for free, instead of restricting free lunch to students whose families fill out forms, can reduce the number of students who get suspended multiple times, according to a new study.

It’s the latest evidence that universal meal programs, which have also been linked to higher test scores and better health in other research, help students.

“There are many potential benefits to providing universal free meals in high-poverty schools, including achievement impacts … and of course whatever reduction in kids going hungry comes with it,” said Nora Gordon of Georgetown University, who wrote the paper along with Krista Ruffini at the University of California at Berkeley.

The study, which was released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been formally peer reviewed, focuses on the federal free lunch program’s “community eligibility” initiative, which allowed schools where many students qualified for free or reduced price lunch to provide the free meal to all students. This was designed to reduce the stigma of receiving the meals among low-income students, streamline paperwork, and ensure no student went hungry. (Previous research has shown that in California, for instance, 13 percent of students who were eligible for subsidized lunch didn’t receive it for one reason or another.)

Gordon and Ruffini took advantage of the fact the the program was rolled out slowly, starting in 2012. This allowed the researchers to compare the suspension rates of the initial schools that took up the program to those in states that adopted it later. The paper also tries to account for the fact that at this time, many states and districts were already making efforts to reduce exclusionary discipline.

The study estimates that in elementary school, the chances of being suspended multiple times fell by about a third of a percentage point in elementary school and half a percentage point in middle school. Those aren’t big changes, but only a small share of students receive multiple suspensions in the first place.

Gordon and Ruffini say community eligibility may have had broader effects because it helped students nutritionally and also because it improved “the social climate of the school by reducing the stigma associated with free meals.”

There was some evidence that making entire schools eligible for free lunch reduced in-school suspensions, too, but the program didn’t seem to reduce the number of students who were suspended just once or have any effect on suspensions in high school.

One limit of the study is that it relies on federal civil rights data, which only reports the share of a school’s students suspended once and the share suspended more than once. This data has also been shown to be inaccurate in some cases, as schools may input wrong information. The results also vary somewhat based on the group of schools that the researchers focus on.

But the finding is consistent with a handful of other studies pointing to benefits of community eligibility, including the preliminary data from other papers that have yet to be published. It’s also in line with other research showing that the timing of receiving food stamp benefits — and therefore, when families may be most able to eat well — affects poor students’ test scores and behavior.  

The community eligibility program has continued to grow. Still, in the 2016–17 school year nearly half of eligible schools didn’t participate.