Five Questions with Johnson City Schools' Homeless Education Program coordinator

Brandon Paykamian • Sep 17, 2019 at 7:40 PM

Johnson City Schools’ Homeless Education Program Coordinator Sydnee DeBusk says educating some of the city’s poorest students comes with some unique challenges.

But she has some ideas on how to help overcome some of those obstacles. 

On Monday, the Johnson City Press interviewed DeBusk to learn more about her work, challenges in public education and ways to address those challenges. But first, she told us a bit about herself. 

Fast Facts: 

Hobbies: “Chasing a 3-year-old, working in the yard and snow skiing.”

Dogs or cats: “Dogs — one rescue named Munchie.” 

Pet peeves: “Crumbs on the kitchen counter.” 

Favorite TV show: “Parenthood”

Favorite local restaurant: Label

Give us an overview of your work 

Through the Homeless Education Program, we work to ensure school-age children are able to enroll, participate, and thrive in school without any barriers based on current living arrangements. This is accomplished through assistance with immediate enrollment within 24 hours of contact, advocating for child’s best interest both academically and socially, and creating awareness of ongoing needs in the community.

What got you involved in this type of work, and what led up to your work at Johnson City Schools?

Growing up with a somewhat adverse childhood, I was certain I wanted to help and support kids and their families in my community, but unsure in what capacity. After countless volunteer hours in my community, I came across the Homeless Education Program within Johnson City Schools. I graduated from East Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s in social work and a minor in special education in 2012. I was a BSW intern with the Homeless Education Program in 2012 through the Social Work Department at ETSU. After graduation, I worked for Johnson City Schools as a special education assistant for four years. In 2016, a position opened in the Homeless Education Program, and I accepted it. Since then, I have realized that we have to show up for these kids and meet them where they are to break the generational cycle of poverty.

Have you noticed a rise in homeless students?

Absolutely! In my four years of working with the Homeless Education Program, I have seen an incredible increase in the number of students identified and served. I believe that more awareness that homelessness affects our region and a willingness to advocate for people living in severe poverty can help combat our need for services like this in the future.

What are some of the biggest challenges students in your program face? 

Educational gaps and chronic absenteeism. While the kids and families we serve are very transient/mobile, that child loses three-to-four months of academic progress with every school move. We can combat this by keeping that student at their school of origin and provide transportation to and from school instead of moving their schools — if it’s in that child’s best interest. Although kids are resilient, students that are experiencing homelessness are twice as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, nine times more likely to repeat a grade, and four times as likely to drop out of school.

Students that are experiencing homelessness are chronically absent at a rate that is at least double that of the overall student population. Common causes of absenteeism include housing instability, mobility, illness, mental health challenges due to trauma and toxic stress, and responsibilities that compete with school attendance. I believe in order to overcome education gaps and chronic absenteeism, we as a school system and a community need to do whatever it takes to get these students to school so they can be present and have the same opportunity as all other students.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in public education in general? 

With every student and their family having a different dynamic, coming from various backgrounds that bring certain beliefs, and expectations of what public school education should look like, ensuring that we as a public education system can meet those needs to enable all students to achieve their highest potential is important. We want to hold all students to the same high expectations, all the while being aware of what each student’s particular needs are. We can achieve this by sensitivity awareness training for staff, being culturally diverse, and providing student support with wrap-around services for the entire family.