Washington schools learn to deal with growing number of homeless students

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View a map below which shows number of homeless students by school district.

School districts around the state are grappling with how to help growing populations of homeless students, even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify and report homeless students and to guarantee those students transportation so they can stay at their original schools even if they have been forced to find emergency shelter outside the district.

Being homeless can affect how children learn, can lead to depression and can be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities, labels that stick with a child for years.

"The main goal of identifying kids is so they can stay in their school of origin, so they have consistency with their peers, teachers and educational progress," said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. That means providing cabs, bus passes, or other means of transportation for kids, even if it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school.

It’s up to individual school districts to squeeze that transportation money from their budgets. "There is no pot of money for homeless students," said Dyer. "It’s a big burden for districts."

In the 2008-09 school year (most recent year for which data available), schools reported 20,780 homeless students statewide, up from 8,141 in the 2003-04 school year.

Of the 10 districts with the highest numbers of homeless students in the state, seven reported increases from 2006-07 to 2008-09. Bellingham, for example, was up 84 percent; Shelton, 39 percent; and Wenatchee, 18 percent.

That reflects a national trend, driven largely by the fallout of the grim economy. Families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. They now account for 40 percent of the homeless population, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. And most of those families have children, many of them school-age.

According to a July report by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the number of students who are homeless across the country has increased 41 percent in two years to just fewer than 1 million students. Washington increased 23 percent during the same time period (from 2006-07 to 2008-09.)

And the trend appears to be escalating. The report also found that 39 percent of districts across the country are enrolling more homeless students in the first six months of the 2009-10 school year than the entire previous year. (Washington state numbers will not available until November.)

The state receives some federal money to help districts offset transportation costs and other expenses associated with tracking and helping homeless students. But Washington’s share of those funds was slashed by 28 percent this year, from $1.19 million last year to $862,000 this year, said Dyer.

School districts can apply for some of that money to help defray their homeless student costs. This year, 23 grants, most of which were between $25,000 and $35,000, were awarded on a competitive basis.

Nationally, fewer than one in five districts received grant support for homeless children through either the McKinney-Vento grants or one-time-only stimulus funding by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (ARRA designated $70 million nationwide for schools to help provide services for homeless students.)

On average, the amounts are so little they don’t make a dent in the need, said Ruth McFadden, homeless liaison for the Seattle School District, which did not apply for the McKinney-Vento grant last year in part for that reason. Seattle reported 869 homeless students in 2008-09.

Spokane, which had 915 homeless students in 2008-09, paid about $300,000 for transporting homeless students, said Marilyn Highberg, supervisor of homeless education for the Spokane School District.

Transportation is only one cost connected to homelessness. Identifying the kids in the first place requires resources and can be challenging. Families don’t always disclose, or want it known they have lost their housing, or are couch-surfing and staying in motels.

There tend to be higher numbers of homeless students in lower grade levels, in part because it’s easier to identify kids who need services at that stage, Dyer said.

High school students, in particular, may go out of their way to hide the fact they’re homeless to avoid being stigmatized by peers, McFadden said. Seattle, like other districts, relies on service agencies to help them identify kids and teens whose families are homeless, as well as teachers, school volunteers and others who may spot a red flag that indicates homelessness.

Spokane ramped up its effort to find older kids last year to help make sure they didn’t drop out. Spokane’s homeless liaison coordinated fund-raising with school service clubs so homeless high school students could attend their proms, get caps and gowns, and participate in other typical senior activities, Highberg said. When word got around that help was available, more kids came forward.

"It’s to everybody’s benefit to keep them in school so they can become wage-earning adults," she said.

Once identified, homeless students may need help other than transportation. Some need help with basics, such as clothing or tutoring.

Being homeless affects how children learn, said teachers and therapists who work with this population. Hunger, sleep deprivation, and post-traumatic-stress can lead to behavioral problems in the classroom, or interfere with concentration.

Sometimes those symptoms are misdiagnosed as autism or ADHD, said Judy Burr-Chellin, director of Parent/Child Services for Wellspring Family Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works with homeless families and provides early-learning programs to homeless children up to age 5.

"Depression, irritability, just shutting down in school — they all may be related to lack of sleep or hunger," she said. "But it looks like a learning disability."

The rationale for keeping kids in their original school is that it helps their learning.

A small 2006 pilot study by the Washington state Department of Transportation found that while homeless kids typically had lower grades and Washington Assessment of Student Learning scores than non-homeless students, the grades and scores were better among those homeless students who got to stay in their original schools.

Nationally, the National Center on Family Homelessness reports nearly half of kids who are homeless attend two different schools in any given y ear. Another 28 percent attend three or more.

Homeless children have four times the average rate of delayed development, compared with students who have stable housing. Homeless children are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade compared with their non-homeless peers.

First Place School, a private nonprofit school for homeless elementary students in Seattle, found that kids were coming to their kindergarten program already a year or two behind, not knowing their numbers, letters or colors. That prompted the school to start offering pre-school services as well to try to help keep young homeless children on track.

Homelessness affects students differently at different ages, said Dyer. "But it’s a horrible circumstance, regardless of age."

InvestigateWest reporters Emily Holt and Cassandra Little contributed to this report. InvestigateWest is a nonprofit investigative journalism center based in Seattle. For information on how you can support independent investigative reporting for the common good, go to www.invw.org.

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VIDEO - Generation Homeless: Voices from the Street

Generation Homeless: Voices from the Street from Mike Kane on Vimeo.

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