Q&A With Giselle Danger, JCPS Specialist for Access/Opportunity and the district's Homeless Education Liaison
By Toni Konz Tatman | JCPS Communications Generalist
Giselle Danger came to the United States as an 18-year-old Cuban refugee with her father in 2004—determined to create a better life for herself.
“I was a step away from being homeless,” she admits.
She enrolled at the University of Louisville and earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work. She completed her practicum at the Newcomer Academy in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS).
And when she encountered an opportunity to work for the district’s Diversity, Equity and Poverty Department and with students and families who have been impacted by housing instability and homelessness, she knew it would be a great fit.
“My work and my background has always been around social work and schools,” she said. “It was a great experience for me being able to have specialization in school social work, and my focus has always been helping families.”
Danger said she didn’t know much about the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act until after she began her work with JCPS, and now she has become somewhat of an expert and leading advocate for students and their families.
McKinney-Vento was passed in the late 1980s and is the only major federal legislation that addresses homelessness. It provides funding for a range of services, but in order to qualify, families or a student must identify.
Under the law, a homeless student is defined as one who is sharing housing due to economic hardship; living in a motel, trailer, campground, shelter or other inappropriate place like a car or park; awaiting foster care; without a parent or guardian; or abandoned in a hospital.
Last school year, more than 5,100 students identified as homeless, but Danger always cautions about the numbers, because she knows that they are actually much higher.
“This number does not really give you a good idea of the dimension and the scope of the situation that we are experiencing in our city because our data depends on families that are willing to share with us their housing situation,” she said. “And sometimes that topic is very difficult for families to share.”
Every single school in JCPS is impacted by homelessness, Danger says.
“There isn’t one school in our district that does not have a family who wasn’t impacted by housing insecurity during the last school year,” she said. “This is an issue that affects everyone.”
This is why Danger’s office works around the clock to help students and families and educate them about their rights and what support they are entitled to under federal law.
Question: What does your job entail?
Answer: I coordinate services for students and families that have been displaced or are experiencing housing instability. That includes supporting families that are experiencing homelessness or students who are in foster care. We also support students who are refugees, moving or new to the country. We serve families that have been moved from place to place.
Question: What is your biggest challenge?
Answer: Identifying students and letting families know that we provide services in a way that is very confidential. We protect their privacy. We do understand that many times they might think if they let us know they are experiencing housing instability or homelessness that we have to call Child Protective Services, but that is definitely not the case. We work with families. We know that the main reason why so many of our families are facing housing instability is because of lack of affordable housing and not anything else. We are here to support families and we want to let them know that we will meet them where they are.
Question: What are some of the supports students can receive?
Answer: We can help their families connect with people who provide housing in the community, but our main support is academic support for the students. We want to make sure they can stay in one school, that they have the stability, and they don’t have to move around. Part of what we explain to families is that we do understand that housing instability puts a lot of pressure on the whole entire family, but academically also, mobility has a significant impact.
Question: How big of an impact can moving from school to school have?
Answer: Every time a student has to move from school to school due to housing, they lose four to six months of academic content. So imagine when a family or a student has to move two or three times. We can provide what we call an override, which means they can stay in one school. We provide the transportation. So that is why it is so important that we identify students and they immediately get support as provided by the law.
Question: What is the best part of your job?
Answer: I think the best part of my job is when I see how families can be happy with so little. Sometimes, people assume ‘Oh wow, you work with families who are experiencing the worst time of their life.’ Well, when you have a solid foundation and you have people who love each other and you have people in the community who embrace you and help you, you can still be successful.
Question: How do you measure success?
Answer: I love to look at data, and my success is measured by lack of movement. If I can see a student that can stay in their school even though they are experiencing homelessness, that is how we measure our success many times.
Question: You mentioned that you were close to being homeless yourself. Do you think that experience helps other families relate and seek help?
Answer: In my position, I have been there where they are. I can relate to their stories; I can relate to living paycheck to paycheck. I can relate when they say, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen next.’ But at the same time, I can also see how much you can do when you have the ability of receiving support internally and also the support of your community.
This article was originally published on Nov. 18, 2019.
This article is part of a group project from the Class of 2019 Bingham Fellows. This year’s topic was: It Takes A Village—Mobilizing Community for Student Success