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I-TEAM: The invisible children vanish from the classroom- again

Fellowship Story Showcase

I-TEAM: The invisible children vanish from the classroom- again

Picture of Liz Owens
Thursday, August 11, 2022

By Liz OwensLynnsey Gardner and Jasmine Garcia

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Out of office. That’s the reply from the Richmond County School System’s homeless liaison in the first two weeks of school this year.

Employees within the Richmond County School System tell the I-TEAM it’s leading to chaos behind the scenes on how to enroll homeless and vulnerable students missing permanent addresses and transportation to school.

This is after the I-TEAM exposed nearly 3,000 students who went missing in Richmond County Schools last year despite the district having nearly $200 million to keep these children in school.

Senior investigative reporter Liz Owens began looking into this a year ago. She continues to follow the money and hold the district accountable.

The I-TEAM had four employees call out of sheer frustration this week that even after we exposed this problem months ago, it’s not fixed for this year. One told me last year they climbed a hill to get homeless students to school. This year it’s Mount Everest.

In the woods and hidden in homeless camps and behind closed motel doors, our cameras have found the invisible children of Richmond County.

We found a homeless mother, Alyssa, living in a motel room since July. She was falling behind on rent. She’s the mother of four children and now worries about them falling behind in school.

Liz: “How many days have your kids missed?”

Alyssa: “Okay, so my son Reggie missed four days. He goes to AR Johnson and then my daughter Patience only missed two days. She goes to Tutt Middle School and little Tony has missed four days. But last year he missed half a year because the board hasn’t done their job correctly.”

She is still waiting to hear back from the district about transportation for little Tony, her special needs son.

“I’ve left numerous messages. They have a... I guess you call a transient homeless in-placed liaison at the board of education,” explains Alyssa. “I’ve reached out to them. Their message box is full.”

The district’s website directs parents like Alyssa to contact the homeless liaison, but the liaison appears to be missing in action this school year.

We received this automatic reply when we emailed her two days ago.

Employees tell the I-TEAM they did hear from one of their superiors last week; the Director of Assessments and Research wrote them this email:

“If you have to submit a SWARM for homelessness, we are adding Ms. Amelia “Amee” Holmes.”

SWARM is the system they use to make referrals for homeless students.

This week, a third directive came.

“…instead of sending your swarm referrals to go to Amy Holmes, please now send them to Ms. Kimberly Mungo until further notice.”

A homeless student’s case must be referred through SWARM before a family can access services. A delayed referral delays help and learning for homeless kids.

The I-TEAM uncovered 456 homeless elementary students were referred to the homeless liaison during the 2020-21 school year. For the 21-22 school year that number dropped to only 154; rather confusing to see a decline at a time when the homeless population in Augusta was exploding by more than 150%.


Richmond County School System is asking the public to help with making sure students get to school and are counted.
“During the first ten days of school, we make sure that all of our children are in school and work with our families to identify support needs that can help students be ready to learn,” says Marcus Allen, Assistant Superintendent of Support Services.
The school system has a process that automatically enrolls students for the next school year. Over the summer, families may move or experience challenges due to poverty, homelessness, loss of a family member or employment that can disconnect them from the school system.
“We want all our students back. We can help families with transportation, counseling support and connect them with community partners who prioritize our children to help meet their other needs,” says Allen.
To support student needs, the school system helps students and families access the extensive resources available in school and in the community. The school system has dedicated transportation resources to aid students experiencing homelessness with getting to school. Families should notify the school principal, social worker or counselor to access services.
“Children can benefit from showing up at school. Missing school affects student academic success and our students grow as learners by being in school,” says Allen. “Our schools are filled with positive, caring adults that can help them get through any challenge.”
To support the needs of the community, the school system can provide families with access to mental health services, after school programs, flexible graduation pathways for high school students, and more.
“If you know of a family that is waiting until Labor Day to start school or has school-aged children that are not attending school, please encourage them to bring their children to school today. We are ready for them,” Allen adds.
-Richmond County School Systems

The district has not yet answered how many homeless students they have identified so far this month to start another school year.

They also have not answered our questions about the van the board approved to shuttle homeless students to class this spring.

The school spokesperson said she would have answers after a scheduled meeting with social workers.

The meeting was scheduled for next week but was bumped up Thursday after the I-TEAM pressed again for answers.

One of the employees who spoke to me explained:

“A lot of times leadership sees what is best for the school instead of what is best for the student. Schools don’t want chronic absenteeism on their report card because it is a poor reflection on the school, so a lot of administrators are anxious to get them off the roll.”

Students are withdrawn from the roll after missing the first 10 days of class.

“It’s frustrating because I have kids that need to be in school, so they don’t end up homeless at 15 years old and broken and destitute,” Alyssa explains. “You understand what I’m saying? They’ve got to get an education.”

Six more days without a ride to school and little Reggie will vanish off the roll call. Another invisible child lost on the fault line of education.

A former lead social worker at the district filed a whistleblower complaint against the district alleging she was retaliated against after speaking up about violating a federal law that protects homeless students. The four employees who spoke with me are concerned about retaliation, but worry even more about the well-being of their students if they don’t speak up about what they’re witnessing on the ground.

[This article was originally published by WRDW.]

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