TEMPLE — Keisha Rixey couldn’t concentrate.
The Liberty Hill Middle School sixth-grader, shared a three-bedroom home with nine other people. Without her own room, finding a quiet place to do her homework seemed impossible.
“When you’re in a house full of people, sometimes it’s hard to focus,” said Keisha’s mom, Susan Ketterman. “Everything depends on (her) education.”
Ketterman, 31, and her three children weren’t always homeless. The single mother of three was laid off from her job when Ryan’s Family Steak House went out of business in May. Ketterman, who receives about $280 in unemployment weekly and $350 in food stamps monthly, lived in two different crammed houses before finding a low-income apartment in December at Canyon Creek Townhomes in Temple. It was the only home she could afford on the small stipends.
Frustrated and unable to buy her children essential belongings, Ketterman was also aware of the social and educational difficulties her children would face by transferring to a new school district mid-year.
“When I signed them up for (school), I was making good money and they were doing fine,” Ketterman said. But now unemployed, Ketterman, who doesn’t own a car or have a driver’s license, wondered how to keep her children in the Killeen Independent School District after moving to Temple. She remembered the district’s Homeless Awareness Response Program, which helped the family with food and clothes when they first moved to Killeen.
Among its goals, HARP has “school of origin” routes that provide transportation to homeless students and those who live doubled-up with another family at the start of the school year, but find housing outside the district throughout the year.
HARP currently coordinates transportation for 175 students who live within the Florence, Copperas Cove, Temple and Belton school districts.
“(The program) is set up in order to keep our HARP children from having to change schools multiple times in a school year and falling behind educationally since they are at risk of losing three to six months of learning with each change of school,” said Christina Adam Wilson, homeless liaison for Killeen ISD. “Not to mention (there is an) increased risk of being targeted by bullies.”
Keisha, 13, Denzil, 8, and Shayla, 7, wake up with enough time to catch the 6:41 a.m. bus and eat the free breakfast that Killeen ISD provides when they arrive at school. They’re among more than 55 percent of all Killeen ISD students who receive free or reduced lunch, according to the latest count from the district.
This year, Wilson said several children moved multiple times to different residences, which required a change in schools and sometimes a change in districts.
She said the routers and drivers are heroes who give children the extra care they need as the students go through a difficult time.
“The compassion the drivers have for our HARP students is invaluable, as they are the first and last KISD face these kids see,” she said. “They welcome them to a great day of learning and send them home with encouraging thoughts to get them through the night. ... We have had drivers call to ask for food, coats and other needs they discover through conversations for their HARP riders.”
Ketterman didn’t want to make her children transfer.
“They’re all doing so much better since we moved into our own place,” she said. “(Keisha) has her own room (and) her grades went up since moving.”
Before moving, they had food and a roof over their heads, but with two families in the same house, it was hard to discipline her children and everyone was doubled-up on beds or sleeping on couches.
“There was never (any) structure until you got your own home,” said Ketterman, who has not had her own place since 2009. “Now (that I) have (my) own home, there’s structure. It builds (the children’s) self-esteem and they have their rooms and their own beds to sleep on at night.”
While the family was bouncing from home to home, Keisha carried five outfits to wear throughout the week in her beaten up backpack. With no room — or money — for pencils and paper, Keisha was unequipped to start the 2012-2013 school year.
With HARP’s help, her backpack was filled with the tools she needs to make it through the year.
“We had clothes, but they were growing,” Ketterman said. “All my unemployment money was going to my bills. I had no money to help out with getting the stuff that I needed (for my children).”
Although her unemployment runs out in June, Ketterman knows she’ll have help from Killeen ISD to provide essentials for her children and is looking to further her own education by taking classes at Temple College.
Ketterman, who dropped out of high school in 10th grade when she was pregnant with Keisha, said she’s looking forward to getting her GED.
With a stable home and not having to worry about her children’s education, Ketterman said she doesn’t have anything distracting her from focusing on her own studies.
“With me not (graduating high) school and showing them I (want to) go to school now, (my children) are inspired,” Ketterman said. “Even (when) I lose my unemployment benefits, I still will have something to back me up. I won’t lose my home. If I go get an (education), my income will increase.”
While HARP will provide transportation for her children throughout the school year, they will likely go to Temple ISD schools in the fall.
“It’s (good) to see your children go to school every day and not have to worry about getting to school or eating there or worry about how, what or when to get things you need,” she said. “It’s nice (not to) worry anymore. They’re happy we have our own place now. They really are.”