To them, the Boyce L. Ansley School, housed in St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, is a comfort-able, safe place in an often turbulent world.
It’s Monday morning, and identical brightly printed backpacks hang in cubbies near the door of a big, cheerfully decorated classroom. Kid-level shelves hold baskets of toys, crayons, paper, books, and anything else a prekindergartner could want. A room full of children wearing uniforms of khaki shorts or skirts and white polo shirts squirm on a rug with squares of primary colors to mark their spots. “Mrs. B” calls the class to order. As the children continue their chatter, her voice becomes softer and slower. After a few seconds, the class comes to attention as well as prekindergartners can. On the surface, this looks like your typical pre-school classroom, but the 12 children enrolled here come from six different shelters in and around metro Atlanta.
Two were left without a place to live because their landlords failed to maintain their apartments. When the city condemned the buildings, their families had nowhere to go. Two were moved from one shelter to another in the first six weeks of the school year, forcing their older siblings to switch public schools. Some of the families have been homeless for years; some have lost their living spaces only recently. Some have been in and out of homelessness more than once.
One student’s father, 30, says the school has made a huge difference in his four-year-old son. He has a job, but his family lost their home when he had to have unexpected surgery. The family could find no available shelter space where everyone could stay together, so his son ended up in a shelter with just his mother. The dad is still “between places.”
The boy’s enrollment at Ansley has been a silver lining in an otherwise bleak situation, his dad says. “He’s more aware, more confident now. He can sit down and have a conversation. I can’t tell you how much better his speech is.” And maybe best of all, “he wakes his mother up in the morning now because he can’t wait to get to school.”
WHERE THERE IS NEED || The Boyce L. Ansley School began as many enterprises do. “This evolved from being in community and seeing a need,” said Kate Kennedy, its founder and executive director.
Kennedy, a former television producer with seminary training from the Emory University Candler School of Theology, became a stay-at-home mom for 20 years, taking care of her four children, one of whom has learning disabili-ties. She was chair of the board of Crossroads Community Ministries, a nonprofit agency headquartered at St. Luke’s, which assists homeless people by providing meals, a mailing address, MARTA cards, job training, clothes, and applications for identification cards and birth certificates.
A few years ago, she and other volunteers noticed that more clients were arriving with children in tow. To accommodate the children, they started a parents’ morning-out program at the church on Tuesdays, where the children ate breakfast and lunch, read books, and played. “We noticed a lot of kids were school-aged,” Kennedy said. “One girl was 12 years old.” Kennedy started thinking about the difficulties facing homeless parents, from needing an address to register a child for school to getting the required vaccinations. Homeless parents tend to be transient, living on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter, school district to school district, Kennedy said. “We just decided to do something about it.” That “something” turned into The Boyce L. Ansley School.
FORMATION AND FOUNDATION | | The late Boyce Lineberger Ansley, a leader in St. Luke’s and a force in Atlanta philanthropy, was “our first big cheerleader,” Kennedy said. “She had ideas, plans, and excitement. She believed in the school.” When Ansley died in 2016, the school was still far from a reality. Kennedy and others conducted feasibility studies, “talked to everybody we could think of,” and developed a program. Then, there was money to raise. By the time the school opened in August 2018, more than 300 individual donors contributed $300,000.
The school started with just a pre-K class and a plan to add a level each year. The goal is to offer pre-K through third grade — with every child reading at grade level — within five years and through eighth grade within 10. Once students are enrolled, they can stay until they complete all available levels, no matter how their families’ circumstances change. “A lot of our children will have suffered a great amount of trauma from instability,” Kennedy said. “We want these children to have one thing in their lives that’s very consistent.”
She knows that one way to help the children is to help their parents, who are mostly single mothers. “We feel they run into barriers wherever they go,” she said. “I look at these moms and don’t know how they do it. They are doing the best they can. We want to help them by making things as easy as possible.”
For now, the school provides parents with MARTA cards to bring their children to St. Luke’s. Kennedy hopes eventually to be able to buy two buses.
Kennedy and other board members recruited the first class of students by visiting area shel-ters and talking to parents. She said she is often asked why the board doesn’t just work within the Atlanta Public Schools system.
“It’s a complicated situation,” she said. “The reason we don’t is that with the sheer number of children in the public school system — the different developmental stages, different socioeconomic groups and different academic exposure — to deal with children who are not getting enough sleep or don’t have enough food or don’t have clean, fitting clothes to wear is more than the public schools are able to manage. And as children move from shelter to shelter to shelter, it’s logistically difficult.” In fact, the Atlanta school system’s Homeless Liaison office is partnering with Ansley to refer homeless students who didn’t do well in public pre-K or had to drop out before completing the program. One boy at Ansley started public pre-K in the 2017-2018 school year but failed to finish because of having to move too far away from the school where he started.
SCHOOL RULES || Ansley’s lead teacher, Muminah Rashid-Bilal, “Mrs. B” to her pupils, starts the day with a game that calls every child by name and gives each one an opportunity to choose an exercise — clap, dance, stomp, or twist in rhythm.
She corrects misbehavior gently, getting the class to quiet down by telling the children to pretend to “put a button on your lip.” When a bit of pushing takes place, she asks the children the class rules. In unison, they shout, “be safe” and “be kind.”
“I can be firm with them,” Rashid-Bilal says, “but they know I love them. That’s my secret weapon.” As a Muslim, she wears a hijab to cover her head and hair. Among both girls and boys in the classroom, a basket of chiffon scarves has become a top attraction, so they can emulate Mrs. B.
Rashid-Bilal has degrees in architecture but discovered that working with children is her passion, so she returned for schooling in education. “I love their aha moments,” she said.
She had a few homeless children in classes at other schools where she taught previously, but until working at Ansley she had never worked exclusively with homeless children. “I didn’t think teaching them would be different from teaching other children,” she said, “but they’re more independent, more self-sufficient.” For example, she said, not a single child shed a tear when they were dropped off for the first time.
Despite her own faith, she did not hesitate to go to work at an Episcopal church. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this mission,” she said, “to be a part of exposing children to things they may not have been exposed to because of limited resources.”
Her assistant teacher, Donna Taylor, is a St. Luke’s member and a veteran of the Atlanta Public Schools system. Like Rashid-Bilal, she had taught in classes with one or two homeless children. “I saw that about the time we got to know them, they would leave,” she said.
Taylor enjoys reading to the children and said their interest in books grew phenomenally in the first month of school. “Now, they’re asking us to read the same books over and over,” she said, “and they’re memorizing the books and ‘reading’ them to us.”
Social worker Crystal Crawford is charged with keeping up with what’s going on in the children’s lives outside the school. She regularly meets with parents, makes after-school visits, and conducts workshops. She’s been surprised at how engaged the parents are in the life of the school. Nine parents, for instance, attended a recent workshop on goal setting. Sitting in their children’s little chairs, they used colored safety scissors to clip pictures and words out of magazines to illustrate their aspirations. Pictures of well-furnished rooms and families having fun together were popular. Because Ansley provides “everything the students need”— uniforms, backpacks, meals, snacks, transportation, and school supplies — “it makes parental involvement much easier,” said Crawford, who came to Ansley from Clayton County Public Schools where she worked as a parent liaison.
Crawford says it’s important that the school staff really get to know all the parents and children. “If something happens that affects the child, it affects all of us,” she said. And parents seem to trust the Ansley staff with their concerns. Mothers have come to Crawford to ask for help and support when they were struggling with housing issues.
“We really are creating a community here,” Kennedy said. “This is their place — the parents’ place as well as the children’s.”
BUILDING A FUTURE || Outside the door to the breakfast-snack-and-lunch room are posters with a quote from each child about getting along. “Friends slide down together,” says one. “Friends are nice.” “If you have a toy, they will say ‘please’.”
Inside the room, the children are sitting in front of plates of fresh strawberries and crack-ers. Before they eat their snacks, they say a short blessing: “We thank you for our bread, we thank you for our butter. Most of all, we thank you for each other.”
This little tribe of dedicated adults and bright, energetic children has begun a new adventure together. For Kate Kennedy, it’s a dream come true and an aspiration achieved. For the staff, it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children and their families who are often left out and overlooked. And for the children, perhaps, the experience will have an impact on generations to come.