Multimedia Journalist

JC Schools extending transportation for students displaced in tornado

Coretta Coleman and her three children were sleeping in their four-bedroom, two-bathroom rental home on Jackson Street the night of the May 22 tornado, she said. Fleeing the upstairs bedrooms with no time to get to the basement, they took shelter in the first-floor bathtub.

The home took a direct hit.

They lost everything, she said.

While looking for a new home, they experienced difficulty finding affordable housing that met all of their needs, Coleman said.

“We looked for months and months,” she said. “(There were) three-bedroom (homes) that were three times more than we could afford in the same area. There was a reason we stayed in that area — because that area is a little bit more affordable, it’s convenient for school, it was just convenient for our lifestyle.”

Relocation for families displaced after the tornado has been slow and complex.

Some remain without permanent residences; some are just beginning to get settled.

A lack of affordable housing before the disaster worsened afterward, said Stephanie Johnson, Boys & Girls Club of Jefferson City director and Jefferson City School District school board member.

“There’s always been a lack of good, quality affordable housing in Jefferson City,” she said.

Jefferson City estimates a loss of at least 150 housing units during the tornado.

Some students were living in Hawthorne Park Apartments, where 18 buildings were damaged in the tornado, JC Schools Chief Finance and Operations Officer Jason Hoffman previously said.

The school district has acquired more than 30 properties

impacted by the tornado near Jefferson City High School. So far, property acquisitions have cost $1.05 million, with $2 million for property acquisition costs approved by the board.

Approximately five students lived in the area where the school district has acquired the properties prior to the tornado, according to district records.

“That amount of fluctuation in a given school’s enrollment is incredibly common from year to year, or even within a given school year,” said Dawn Berhorst, director of student information, planning and assessment.

The school district made accommodations for students who were impacted by the tornado and qualified as homeless to keep them in their current schools, Berhorst said.

Sixty-four students filled out homeless forms for the 2019-20 school year, according to district records.

Students at Thorpe Gordon Elementary School, Lewis and Clark Middle School and JCHS — the neighborhood schools for families who live near Jackson Street, Tanner Bridge Road and U.S. 54 — were the most impacted, Berhorst said.

Two of Coleman’s children attend JCHS, and her third-grader attends Thorpe Gordon Elementary.

“I’ve lived in Jefferson City for the last 17 years, and never has it been so hard to find an affordable place to live like now,” Coleman said.

There weren’t a lot of options in the area, she said. Property owners didn’t return her calls, and the timeframe was lengthy.

“Some landlords were taking the application fees and never getting back,” Coleman said. “We were just paying $50 here, $25 here. It became really expensive to never get a callback.”

On Jackson Street, the neighbors were close, she said. She learned from other displaced families they too struggled to find housing.

While families are still searching for a permanent living space, the district is providing transportation for some students to their former residential schools, Berhorst said.

Some families’ living conditions may include staying with family across town or in hotels or shelters, she said.

The district will provide transportation to those tornado-affected students while the students are in their current school, Berhorst said. Once students reach the end of a school’s grade span, transportation will need to be arranged for the next school.

Providing a voice for students who attend the Boys & Girls Club was the reason Johnson joined the board of education, she said. She is glad the district is accommodating students while families find their permanent places and recover emotionally.

“I’m proud of the fact that the district is allowing them to be accommodated for the remainder of their school time,” Johnson said. “That may cost a little more money, but sometimes, I’m more in favor of what I think is right and not what’s more affordable.”

Keeping students in their resident schools is also important for some parents.

Ten students within Jefferson City School District transferred schools due to the tornado, as parents impacted by the tornado may move students to schools in their new boundary lines, Berhorst said.

The district’s total K-12 enrollment was 39 fewer students in 2019-20 than in 2018-19, she said.

“A fluctuation in enrollment district-wide of 39 students is not unusual,” Berhorst said. “We can see that in any typical year.”

Coleman is unsure if her family has found a permanent residence. They found a reasonable place in August; however, they had to downsize.

After a summer of moving from place to place, having school be consistent for her children is non-negotiable, she said.

The district promised her the high school students would remain at JCHS, she said. If their new address is outside of Thorpe Gordon elementary boundary lines, the family may move again before the 2020-21 school year.

“I like him to have that stability to know where he’s going to go,” Coleman said. “Knowing the teachers and knowing the kids, and it’s a comfort for myself as well.

“If next year comes and we’re unable to stay at that same school, then we’ll probably move again,” she continued. “… I don’t want him to have to adjust like he’s had to adjust to everything else. If I can keep anything close to normal, then that’s what I’m going to aim for.”

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