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Success coaches for homeless students lose their jobs as federal funding runs dry

Amie Corona sits in her office at North Central Florida Charter School on her last day of work. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)
Amie Corona sits in her office at North Central Florida Charter School on her last day of work. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)

After federal grant funding ran out, a woman who mentored homeless students in Alachua County lost her job. Now, her students will have to find a way forward without her.

Amie Corona’s job felt like more than just a job. Every day, she helped hundreds of homeless and at-risk youth as a dropout prevention specialist, providing free mentoring and tutoring to students in Alachua County, as well as helping them with food, clothing and housing needs.

Two of her students, Jaliah Brown, 16, and Kymani Glosson, 15, have a child together. Jaliah said “Miss Amie” helped her deal with the stress of being a mom.

“She lets me come sit in here [in her office]. She'll show me the things I need to do, point out the things,” Brown said.

Another of her students, Charles Smith, is in the 10th grade. He said Corona did so much for the school and for her students.

“I remember, this one day I walked in and I was sad, and nobody noticed it but her,” Smith said. “It felt like I had someone there.”

On May 3, Corona was told she was being let go from her position.

Joram Rejouis is the director of project development for Alachua County Public Schools and Corona’s boss. He cited a lack of funding as the reason she and two other staff members were let go. Their positions were temporary, he said, and were funded by a grant from the American Rescue Plan, emergency funding authorized during the COVID-19 pandemic. When that grant ran out, the county could no longer afford their salaries.

“The people that we are forced to part ways with are people [who] are very valuable to us that we certainly want to keep on,” Rejouis said. “Unfortunately, we do not have the means to keep them on.”

Rejouis said the three staff members he had to let go constituted 40% of his total staff, and their caseloads, encompassing hundreds of students, will now have to be redistributed among the remaining workers.

“It is putting a strain on the program, as you can imagine,” he said. “We are forced to do more with less, much more with less.”

The white board in Amie Corona's office shows notes and drawings from her students. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)
The white board in Amie Corona's office shows notes and drawings from her students. (Kristin Moorehead/WUFT News)

Corona said she feels like she’s someone the kids can relate to, because her life mirrors their own. Corona grew up in a single parent home and has experienced abuse and homelessness.

“When they met me from the beginning to the end, they learned a lot about me too,” she said. “I'm not somebody that's just talking to them, that doesn't know anything. I literally rose above from the things that I had been through, too, and then they connected with me on that level.”

Smith agrees.

“People basically got a script on how they talk to kids,” he said. “It's all from the heart with Miss Corona, you can feel that, and she really cares.”

Smith said some of the students wrote her letters asking her to stay.

“I felt like we could stop it, stop her from leaving by writing letters and stuff,” he said. “But, you know, people, they have higher authority. They say it's got to go, they got to go.”

Corona’s pink slip came days after the School Board of Alachua County and the Board of County Commissioners held a joint meeting to discuss, among other things, student homelessness. School board members and commissioners agreed then that more funding was needed for programs helping homeless students.

At that meeting, Superintendent Shane Andrew said the current estimate of the number of homeless students in the county — 920 children — is likely an underestimate. Corona agrees, saying that number could be in the thousands.

The county hired Corona as part of a federal program called the McKinney Vento Act. This law, passed in 1987, was designed to help homeless students succeed in the school system, and was reauthorized in 2015 under Title IX. Corona said she and her coworkers did more than just academic tutoring.

“We've put clothing on their backs and made them feel better about themselves and just so many different things,” Corona said, “Little things, like help them get their license, their ID, help them get jobs, you know, build their self-esteem, help keep them out of trouble a lot of times too.”

Another part of Corona’s job was to go out into the community and find partners who could help fill some of the students’ needs, as Rejouis said the county can’t provide everything on its own.

“Homeless children and youth are part of our community,” Rejouis said. “Their success, the success of these students, is also the success of the community and they need the community to help them.”

Corona worked at several different schools in her role, including North Central Florida Charter School. Penny Sirmones is the administrative assistant there, and she’s worked there for over 14 years.

Sirmones said the school serves a very at-risk population of students, which is why their partnership with the McKinney Vento program and Corona was so important.

“Their home life is so raggedy until … we show them tender loving care as much as we can, go above and beyond to make sure that they eat, that they have clothes, that they have shoes,” Sirmones said.

Sirmones called Corona’s work “indispensable,” and said she’s worried about the upcoming year for Corona’s students.

“Our students need that. It's absolutely necessary,” she said. “So when she leaves, we're at a point now also that we just don't know what we're going to do.”

Many of the students at NCF treat Corona like a second mom. Earlier this month, she helped a number of them get ready for prom, including coordinating with cosmetologists to donate their time and talent to help them get ready, and spending her own money and time finding new suits and dresses for them to wear.

Amie Corona stands with Jaliah Brown, 16, and Kymani Glosson, 15, at the students' prom at Depot Park. (Courtesy Amie Corona)
Amie Corona stands with Jaliah Brown, 16, and Kymani Glosson, 15, at the students' prom at Depot Park. (Courtesy Amie Corona)

Corona said she knew by that point that she was leaving but didn’t want the kids’ night to be sad.

“I've been trying to treat it like it's not been any different because I don't want them upset,” she said.

She was told she will be allowed to reapply within the school system for other positions, and she said there’s a possibility she could be rehired if the county gets more funding.

“Hopefully, or possibly by the grace of God, I know not everybody is a believer, but if funding might become available, which I don't know,” she said. “I would be brought back.”

She has looked into other jobs in the county, but said nothing will make her as happy as she was working with her students.

“I do believe in God and I'm just like, I made a difference, clearly. And whether you're spiritual or whatever good was done, and I just have to trust that whatever is meant for me is going to be,” she said.

Kristin is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.