January 06, 2020

Salt Lake City School District counselor advocates for educational equity

Salt Lake City School District counselor advocates for educational equity
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by Atticus Agustin

Poplar Grove resident, Mike Harman, has an impressive track record helping homeless and unaccompanied youth access education as the Homeless Education Liaison for the Salt Lake City School District for the past 11 years.

He is also revered for the work he has done in other capacities to advocate for public education and further opportunity for disadvantaged students. 

Harman has been with the Salt Lake City School District for 21 years. His first 10 years were as an elementary school counselor. His current stint as the Homeless Liaison was originally a one-year contract, but the previous holder of the position accepted employment elsewhere, so he stayed. 

In addition to his position, he has served 12 years on the Salt Lake Education Association Executive Board, three years on the UEA Board of Directors, three years as vice president of the Salt Lake Education Association, and currently serves as the executive board liaison for the Salt Lake Teachers Association Political Action Committee.  

In 2018, Harman received the Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award from the National Education Association for his work to end homelessness through education.

Harman’s determination to help students reach their full potential and realize that homelessness is not an identification of an individual but simply a situation, is why he enjoys the work he does. 

Harman says part of his job is to “remove barriers to attending school.” This includes navigating paperwork that requires a parent or legal guardian’s signature for unaccompanied minors, helping students access Advanced Placement courses and extracurricular activities, and providing transportation assistance. 

Harman has also worked for many years leading Neighborhood House’s SOAR II Program (Summer Outdoor Activities and Recreation), which is a summer program established in 1996 for seventh and eighth graders. Students who have excelled academically and have made good choices are eligible, pending an interview and referral process. 

This nine-week program’s aim is to foster a spirit of community service, while providing enriching and fun experiences for underprivileged youths.

Supported by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation, the SOAR II summer program includes activities such as hiking, bowling, paddle boarding and trips to southern Utah, and even Washington D.C.

In his position with the district, Harman works closely with a policy passed by Congress to reduce homelessness – the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan “to protect children’s rights.” There are four funding sources for the Mckinney-Vento Homeless Act: federal grants, Title I money, property tax, and donations. 

Harman said that LGBTQ+ youths are a significant demographic of those unaccompanied and homeless student groups. 

“They are not comfortable at home or are not allowed to stay because of conflicting values with their parents or guardians.” Harman says he has seen an increase of homeless and unaccompanied youth. “Times are getting harder, especially since so many people want to stay in Salt Lake City.”

Harman realizes that excessive bureaucratic red tape and long, complicated procedures make the situation more difficult for homeless youth. 

“We have had a better time educating district employees to prioritize the students to get them into school … when in doubt about eligibility, just fill out the McKinney-Vento Form.”

Some of the students Mike has counseled have gone on to attend college, and secure jobs such as an attorney and dispatcher. “Not every student is going to go to college, and that’s okay. But I want people to have options in order to be successful,” he said. 

Harman stresses the importance of being involved at the community level. His advice to homeless and unaccompanied youths remains reassuring: “There are resources. Find that person you can trust, whether it be a faculty member or a custodian.”

Mike Harman gave assistance to Atticus (the author of this story) when he and his sister were unaccompanied students at West High School after their parents returned to their country of origin.