Every Tuesday, Ashlee Johnson takes her 10-year-old daughter, Aerie’Onna, to the Carnegie Library branch near Allegheny Center. 

At the library, they meet tutor Kim Lincoln and volunteer Alison Ramirez from the Homeless Children’s Education Fund [HCEF]. 

On a Tuesday evening in March, Lincoln and Ramirez began their tutoring session with Aerie’Onna by playing a story-building game. 

Aerie’Onna started by narrating stories about a shape-shifting superhero, an Egyptian family with magical powers and humans invading another planet. Lincoln and Ramirez chimed in, adding new details to her stories and encouraging Aerie’Onna to use her imagination. 

Aerie’Onna is one of nearly 3,000 children and youth in Allegheny County known to be experiencing homelessness and served by the state’s Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program.

Housing-insecure students are generally more likely to struggle in school and less likely to graduate. That’s where the mobile tutoring services offered by HCEF come into play. HCEF is one of the few organizations in Pittsburgh that were established to support the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness.

Prioritizing education

At 31, Johnson is a single mother of two, balancing two jobs. She’s experienced unstable housing since November due to issues with a previous landlord, and the family has been staying at a friend’s house on the North Side. 

When they first had to move out of their house, Johnson started noticing a rise in Aerie’Onna’s anxiety levels. 

“Sometimes she has a hard time focusing or she gets distracted really easily. And I was noticing that when we were making the transition,” said Johnson.

Aerie’Onna Johnson, 10, comments on books as she walks through the stacks in the children’s section at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Allegheny on Monday, April 10, 2023, in Central Northside. Aerie’Onna comes to the library after school for tutoring through the Homeless Children’s Education Fund [HCEF], a weekly event she looks forward to. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

This was not the first time Johnson and her family were experiencing homelessness. Johnson said they went through a patch of being unhoused just before Aerie’Onna was born. She said she has always tried to be transparent with her daughter about their living situation. 

“Throughout her life, I tried to be very honest with her about what’s going on in our lives,” she said. “And even like in our current situation, I don’t think she fully understands what’s going on. But she does understand that we are in a temporary situation and that we are living with someone else.”

Johnson’s main priority was to make sure Aerie’Onna’s studies did not suffer.

Johnson initially sought help from the charter school, Propel Northside, that her daughter has been attending since kindergarten. Johnson said she was unable to devote more time to help Aerie’Onna with her homework and asked the school if they could provide tutoring. The school referred Johnson to HCEF, which then offered her mobile tutoring services. 

Ardana ‘AJ’ Jefferson, chief executive officer of HCEF, said when a school refers a student, they initiate an intake process with a family engagement coordinator to identify the student’s needs and any barriers to their education. Then they work on providing different programs depending on the student’s needs.

Johnson said helping Aerie’Onna at school amid her other responsibilities has been challenging and she is grateful for support. 

“And I find myself, the older I get, the more willing I am to ask for help. And I understand as I get older the concept that it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “I understand as an adult now in a way that I didn’t when I first had my daughter.”

Various supports from schools

Homelessness has a broader meaning than some may realize. Sonya Meadows, director of strategic communication and enrollment at Propel Schools, said parents need to be educated about the definition of homelessness.

“Many parents, they don’t see themselves as homeless,” said Meadows. “And we have to do a lot of explaining at the enrollment session to get them to understand that homelessness doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have a roof over your head. It sometimes simply means that you’re not living at a permanent address.”

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homeless children and youth as “individuals who lack fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” and provides them certain rights under federal law. 

The law mandates all students identified as homeless have access to the same free and appropriate public education as other children. The students may qualify for assistance with school lunch, school supplies, tutoring and transportation so that they can remain in their school of origin.

Kira Mallick, school counselor at Propel Northside, said once a student is identified as housing insecure, they work to eliminate all barriers.

Propel Northside charter school also houses the Propel Northside Community Wellness Center space for parent education, health and wellness initiatives, and for family and community services, as photographed on Monday, April 10, 2023, in Perry South. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Johnson said she found immense support from Propel Northside. She said the school offered her resources ranging from food to transportation. The school included Aerie’Onna in their backpack program in which they sent non-perishable snacks home with her. 

Johnson said certain teachers were willing to drop Aerie’Onna off or make arrangements for someone to stay at school with her until Johnson could pick her up. 

“I appreciate that because they don’t have to stay,” she said. 

Propel Northside also has a wellness center and a food pantry where basic needs such as clothing, food and personal care items are offered for free. 

The school received about $15,860 from the $24 million that the state received through the American Rescue Plan [ARP] Homeless Children and Youth Program. Propel has not yet spent the funds or specified a use for them.

The Homeless Children’s Education Fund [HCEF] also supports students in high school and beyond. Xavier Littlejohn came into the child welfare system at age 12 and often had to move around. He attended Obama 6-12 and received a scholarship from HCEF to support his higher education. Now 18, Littlejohn is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh and wants to study exercise science. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
The $2,500 scholarship that Littlejohn received is called the Hope Through Learning Award; youth 24 and younger who have experienced homelessness and are attending a career training program or higher education program for the first time are eligible. Littlejohn used part of the scholarship money to buy school supplies when he got admitted to Pitt. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Littlejohn also received support from his school counselor who introduced him to the Cameron Heyward Foundation’s Suiting Up for Success program. Through the program, Littlejohn received free suits for interviews. His counselor also helped him apply for HCEF’s scholarship. Littlejohn’s aunt, with whom he lived during his senior year of high school, introduced him to an educational liaison who helped him with college applications. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Making learning fun

Lincoln said she heavily relies on game-based learning for the students she tutors. For Aerie’Onna, apart from creating math and science lesson plans, she also introduced games for reading and writing. She carries around a box full of games such as Dominoes, Uno and dice to teach math, story-building and word games and also uses money and erasers to teach kids about counting. 

Lincoln said her goal is to keep the students engaged and help them retain what they learn because a lot of her younger pupils were affected by learning loss due to COVID-19 disruptions. 

Johnson said she appreciates how HCEF’s tutors try to make learning fun, saying that she has noticed a difference in Aerie’Onna’s math comprehension. 

She said she liked how the tutors created sessions that were a combination of learning and games so that Aerie’Onna could take breaks in between. 

Ashlee Johnson and her daughter Aerie’Onna, 10, laugh at the table at which Aerie’Onna does her weekly tutoring through the Homeless Children’s Education Fund [HCEF], on Monday, April 10, 2023, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Allegheny in Central Northside. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

“I think it’s great that they are able to kind of tell when they need to take a step back. … I don’t think everyone has that ability,” she said. 

Loren Kurpiewski, HCEF’s education support coordinator, said a tutor is always accompanied by a volunteer for additional support. They cater every lesson plan to the student’s individual needs. Other than tutoring, they also help families with housing applications, provide gift cards to those in need and focus on social-emotional learning. 

Looking ahead

Aerie’Onna Johnson, 10, uses her phone to make an animation, one of the many creative technical activities she is exploring, on Monday, April 10, 2023, at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh-Allegheny in Central Northside. Aerie’Onna, who is both technically and artistically inclined, says she wants to someday build a robot that can cure cancer. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Johnson moved into a new home in McKees Rocks in early March. Even though Johnson and her family no longer identify as homeless, they are still eligible for HCEF’s mobile tutoring services. 

Johnson said she was grateful that they were able to continue with Aerie’Onna’s tutoring and that it had a positive impact on her education. She hopes they can use those services through the next school year.

Aerie’Onna has her sights set on attending the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy next year to develop her passion for robotics and animation. Her dream is to build a robot like Baymax or cure cancer when she is older. 

“I try to encourage my daughter and anything that she wants to do,” Johnson said. “I try to support that. I don’t care what it is.”

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Jack Troy.

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Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...