School districts around Washington 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 the students 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 own 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 were awarded, most of which were between $25,000 and $35,000, and 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 provided 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 08-09, 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.
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