This past Monday, 50 homeless students filed into the Hygge Coworking building near Bank of America Stadium for virtual learning support put on by the Steve Smith Family Foundation. Although Mecklenburg County’s schools actually started two Mondays earlier, on August 17, for many of these students, this was their real first day.
Thousands of students in CMS weren’t able to log on to virtual classes in the first weeks of school, for a variety of reasons — from lack of equipment to lack of internet access to struggles with the programs. The bulk of those who have been stuck, of course, are from lower-income brackets. And now that means they’re that many days behind their peers. And that, Smith and his Foundation believe, is unacceptable.
“When you talk about upward mobility, low income students are generally two years behind,” said Gerard Littlejohn, Steve Smith Foundation executive director. “What’s already an education gap becomes a doggone Grand Canyon.”
The Steve Smith Family Foundation, headed by the former Panthers’ wide receiver and his wife, Angie, is filling the ever widening gap for disadvantaged students by hosting a virtual learning support program that gives homeless students meals, and help in completing their school work.
The Foundation cycled students in over the week until all 100 students were participating. These students were sponsored by the district. Some of them live on the street or in shelters, and others may live in hotels or with family members.
School districts across the country are allotted funds specifically for homeless students through The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, but those funds are connected to schools being open. There’s no blueprint for transferring that money over to the third party facilities during a once in a lifetime global pandemic. CMS estimated about 5,000 of its students are homeless.
“Me being a parent and realizing what I personally experienced with my kids learning online with all the resources I have, if I’m struggling what about people who don’t have any resources,” Smith told me.
[Related Agenda story: Educators worry coronavirus will have long-term setbacks for Charlotte’s disadvantaged students]
The pandemic continues to shed light on systemic inequalities and already vulnerable populations. CMS continues to struggle to support its 148,000 students in the midst of it all. It’s relying on donations to supply 16-18,000 additional wifi hotspots for students in need. Students who are also falling further behind as they wait for an internet connection to learn. Other organizations — not just the Steve Smith Foundation, but the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA — are stepping in to offer free or low-cost programs for students who don’t have anyone to support their virtual educations at home.
“(CMS) tried to pivot the best they could,” Smith said. “They tried to do all that was in their bandwidth, and just like the rest of us they are learning each and every day what new obstacles are in their way.”
[Related Agenda story: CMS estimates 18,000 students could still need internet access]
The Steve Smith Foundation has for years supported victims of domestic violence and their families. Smith says the work they’re doing for homeless students is just an extension of that, as many homeless kids come from families facing abuse.
The Foundation is getting support for its virtual learning program from other nearby nonprofit organizations. It’s still accepting donations for the program as well.
Smith didn’t grow up in Charlotte, but the speedy wide receiver has been here since the Panthers drafted him in the third round in 2001. He says he relates to the students his foundation works with: When he was a kid, his mother was abused, and at times his family could only afford to stay with relatives or in hotels.
“I feel called to be in these areas because I was a kid from these areas,” he said.
He says he wants to see more Charlotteans stepping up in those same low income areas. You don’t have to travel across the world to give back, he says.
“Our Foundation has been doing work in places that a lot of folks drive by to go to these third-world countries to do a summer ministry trip. And there are some third-world sections here in Charlotte that people pass each and every day,” Smith said. “They’re too busy trying to get their Instagram photo with the kid in South America.”