At first glance, the statistics are surprising, even shocking. The number of homeless students in the Sequim School District rose from 25 in August 2010 to 46 in February 2011. That’s an 84-percent leap in just six months.
The two school officials who are closest to the issue, however, provide a number of qualifications that suggest the issue, while certainly worthy of concern, might not be as dire as it first sounds.
Karen Junell works in several district programs, including Title I and English Language Learners. She says federal law doesn’t define “homeless” simply as a person who lacks a home and instead provides several scenarios that define the living conditions of a “homeless” student.
The McKenney-Vento Act, part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, is the relevant legislation.
McKenney-Vento defines a homeless student as one who lacks “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Then it adds the details — lots of them, essentially breaking down “homeless” down into four classifications.
First, there are the “unsheltered,” which includes those living on the streets or in other makeshift housing.
Others are living in public shelters. Some are in hotels or motels.
The largest number of homeless students are those who are “doubled-up,” which may mean living with a relative, or “couch-surfing” — perhaps staying at a friend’s house while things cool down at home. The law provides caveats, saying these students are classified as homeless only if they are doubling up as the result of economic hardship or a similar reason, such as family turmoil, domestic violence or drug treatment.
If they’re living with grandparents because Sequim has good schools, that’s another matter.
Maybe. Junell says if parents self-identify as homeless, the district usually takes
them at their word.
Junell said the definition of homeless is sufficiently broad that many students “don’t think of themselves as homeless. Some are quite OK with their circumstance.”
In the past six months the number of Sequim students living in shelters has risen from two to five, in “hotels/motels” from zero to three, and unsheltered from four to five. By far the largest group is “doubled-up,” with the number growing from 19 to 33.
Junell said they hear about homeless students from a number of sources, including the parents who fill out the district’s annual enrollment form. “That (form) kindly asks and says there may be services available,” Junell said.
“Some families don’t tell you anything. They think it’s none of your business. Others talk.”
School employees, including bus drivers, teachers, secretaries and anyone who has contact with the students, also are trained to look for telltale signs of homelessness and to report the names of the students to school officials.
The names of those who eventually are identified as homeless are kept confidential, with only Junell and Shelley Langston, Junell’s boss and the district’s official “Homeless Liaison,” keeping a printed record.
Others find out, of course. If a parent indicates on the McKenney-Vento form the family might be homeless, a school secretary may make a special point of asking if the family needs assistance.
The families can discuss their circumstances and often do.
Junell said the district staff treats the information respectfully. “They’re really great people,” she said. “And we don’t have time to gossip about a family.”
“We get the names referred to us by multiple sources,” Langston said. “It’s a delicate situation ... a very hard situation.”
It’s important to identify the homeless students because under the law homeless children and youth and their families are granted certain rights, including the right to enroll in school immediately.
“We enroll them without birth certificates or immunization records,” Junell said. “Then the administrators in each building work hard to get the documents we need.”
Junell said the law is designed to provide immediate relief to those who perhaps had to leave their former home quickly and “left those things behind.”
Junell said once a student is identified as homeless, the district’s role is clearly defined. “You just want to make sure these kids are fed and can do the work as well as their peers can do.”
Langston said that while there is very little available funding, the district can purchase for the students certain items and services. “Little, small things,” she said. “We buy clothes, school supplies, maybe pay for sports. It’s hard to generalize because everyone needs something unique.”
Junell said the Sequim community is very supportive. When students enroll, they’re asked if they need a backpack or school supplies, which are all provided by local donors.
She suggests those who want to help also can donate to their favorite local charitable agencies. “You can give sweatpants, maybe a coat to a favorite local group. Unisex clothes are best.
“If people respond to the things that resonate with them, that gets back here.”
The school also works to lend an academic hand to the homeless students. Langston said research consistently finds that after moving students often have “a six-month delay. They fall behind.”
Junell said at the elementary schools there is help for all students — “extra intervention for every student who needs extra intervention,” she said.
High school students are pointed to the extended-day program. “It’s more a case of reminding them of the programs that are available and removing the barriers to taking advantage of it,” Junell said.
Sometimes that means paying school fees for courses, such as auto shop.
The important point of the program, Junell and Langston said, is to provide the students with the assistance they need.
Langston was quick to note that academic difficulties aren’t universal among homeless students, saying some of the students who are homeless are doing very well academically and socially.
Both Junell and Langston said that delving into the reasons a student is homeless is beyond the district’s purview — and largely beside the point. “We certainly have ideas,” Junell said, “but it’s none of our business. Why would we want to take the time?”
Junell agreed the increased number probably is tied to the poor economy, but other reasons may play just as large a role. Junell noted that until this year the district didn’t have a specific form for gathering the information on the homeless. “Now we get more information and better information,” she said.
She also said district staff is better trained to recognize students who may be homeless.