Two decades of youth education work with numerous agencies have given Ardana Jefferson a solid professional skill set to meet the challenges of her new position as CEO of Homeless Children’s Education Fund. But maybe the most important asset she brings is her own experience as a child undergoing the shock of sudden housing instability.
The Niagara Falls, New York native was 8 years old when her parents abruptly separated; shortly after, she and her mother came to Pittsburgh to live with relatives.
“We were in someone else’s home, and we were tripled up in that home,” Jefferson recalls. “As much as my great-aunt wanted us to be there and wanted to help, not every adult in that house wanted me to be there.”
The disruption took a toll on her academic progress.
“I went to school every day, but I didn’t speak. I felt the security of my life in Niagara Falls had been taken away from me, and I didn’t want to learn.”
Jefferson eventually adjusted to her surroundings and went on to earn a B.A. in Communications from Seton Hill University and attend the Advanced Leadership Institute’s Executive Leadership Academy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
Post-grad, she served in leadership roles with YMCAs in Orlando, Florida and Rochester, New York, followed by a four-year stint with Wilkinsburg’s Hosanna House, before joining Hill District-based Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) in March 2022 as executive director. A year later, Jefferson was named the organization’s first CEO.
Founded in 1999 as a program of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to create learning centers at homeless housing and homeless service facilities, the organization has devised new programming over the years to keep pace with the shifting size and demographics of the area’s homeless population.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are nearly 3,000 homeless students in Allegheny County representing 2% of the total student population. Approximately 70% of those homeless students live with family and friends, while 30% are unhoused or reside in shelters.
“The dislocation and uncertainty I went through as a child happens to our HCEF students all the time, often for years,” says Jefferson. “At HCEF we stay connected to our students because we help them solve problems caused by that instability.”
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NEXTpittsburgh: Of the nearly 3,000 Allegheny County students identified as homeless, how many can HCEF reach at any given time?
Ardana Jefferson: Currently we’re supporting 500, and our goal this year is to support 650 to 700. Our next goal would be 1,000.
NEXTpittsburgh: Is it possible you might someday reach every homeless student in the county?
Jefferson: Everyone who needs us, we’re there for them. We can’t say we can reach all 3,000. What we’re going to do is create more innovative programming that brings more children to our programs and services. Our mission is to look deeper into the child’s situation and figure out what they need and how to support them in an unsettled time of their life.
NEXTpittsburgh: You have a new program starting with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh?
Jefferson: Yes, we’re about to launch Winnie’s Wagon. It’s a mobile classroom that will travel anywhere students are experiencing homelessness. It will provide tutoring, school supplies, educational materials, and wraparound services such as healthcare or a healthy snack.
HCEF has long had a strong mobile learning focus. We go to the students, wherever they are. Because of the instability in their lives, homeless students may not be making it into school; we have to go to them to show learning is important. We go to their homes and porches. We meet them in libraries, in parks, on church steps, anywhere we can sit down and work one-on-one.
We’re also talking with local hospitals about how we can have health screenings. How can we get families signed up for a healthcare plan?
NEXTpittsburgh: Are high school years a particularly vulnerable time for homeless students?
Jefferson: This is an area where we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our students and their families. When a child experiences homelessness, they are 87% more likely to drop out of high school. Every time they lose their residence, there can be as much as a six-month learning gap. Getting them to high school graduation is a huge goal to accomplish. But after graduation, what’s next for these teenagers?
We focus on workforce development and get them internships on work sites with local businesses every single week over the course of a summer. They experience real-life work situations — what it means to get to work on time, to receive compensation for the work they provide. HCEF pays for their time on that work site. We pay for their hourly wage. We provide stipends for clothing. We don’t want them to feel they are an outsider because they don’t have the right clothing. We don’t want them to feel they are an outsider because they don’t have the food they need. We provide a stipend for lunch and breakfast every day they are part of the program.
NEXTpittsburgh: Is there a follow-up after the internship?
Jefferson: We give them four-to-six hours of career and life skills training that includes ethics and values in the workplace, résumé building, interviewing tips, all of those practical things students need to be taught to succeed in their postsecondary phase of life. We also create relationships with local universities and technical institutes where our students have indicated they want to pursue an education.
NEXTpittsburgh: How many staff and volunteers does HCEF have?
Jefferson: This past year we’ve added four new positions to our paid programmatic staff, and we’re up to 11 overall. We have hundreds of volunteers. Every time one of our staff goes out into the field, we have one volunteer for every staff interaction with a student. We also work with the teachers union and universities. We’re here to support educators, period.
NEXTpittsburgh: What keeps you optimistic every day?
Jefferson: My HCEF team. The team is there every single day working with these students. They see the milestones, the movement. They see the 6-year-old who could not recognize the letters in his name and is now writing his name. They come to my office with stories of success, and those stories keep me going. We have a student we saw in and out of homelessness for years, and we placed him on a work site. He not only has a job, he has a mentor at the job. He has a person outside of his family that’s going to make sure he’s successful.
What motivates me is growing this organization. What motivates me is ending homelessness because we took education so seriously that homelessness no longer is a generational issue. It takes $1,300 a year per student to work with the students we have. With every dollar we raise, we can help more students and make a huge impact in this community.