Betty Takahashi’s job in the Bellevue School District does not come with the comfort of routine.
One hundred and fifty seven homeless students are currently enrolled in the district’s schools. That’s up from 131 last year. Takahashi’s job is to help every one of them succeed – academically and otherwise.
“I help students enroll in school… and I help students join the football team,” explains Takahashi, who taught English as a Second Language before moving into her current job. “Every day is different.”
Takahashi’s role as a Homeless Education Liaison is mandated by federal law. The Mckinney-Vento Homelessness Assistance Act, passed in 1987, provides $950,000 annually to support the approximately 27,000 homeless students attending Washington state schools. Mckinney-Vento requires every school district in the country to appoint a liaison for homeless students. That liaison, according to the Washington Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, must alert homeless families about the services he or she provides and “facilitate access” to those services, which include transportation to and from school for students in unstable living situations.
But that description doesn’t begin to capture the importance or scope of the work that Takahashi and other education liaisons actually do, which encompasses identifying which kids are homeless, finding a way to get those students back and forth to school and supporting them after they leave campus. In short, this specialized group of educators must create a stable environment for kids who don’t have that experience anywhere else.
“Many times their home life is so dysfunctional that school is the only predictable place they can be,” says Takahashi. “We try to keep kids at school in the normal routine they’ve always had.”
Identifying and reaching out to homeless youth is job one for liaisons. It is a sensitive and complex task, and one that is impossible to tackle alone. Many liaisons attend training seminars several times a year to keep their skills current. They establish lines of communication with the local emergency shelters that house recently-homeless youth. They also train fellow educators (teachers, school counselors, etc.) to look for warning signs, such as a kid who wears the same clothes day after day or who comes to school visibly exhausted or hungry.
“I was contacted by a high school because they had a kid who was hungry,” Takahashi said. “[The student] came from a large family with several children, and his father said, ‘We can’t afford to have you stay with us,’ and kicked him out of the house.”
Once they identify a student at risk, liaisons will sit down with that student and assess his or her living situation, then set the student up with school supplies, housing resources, food, etc. Until these essential needs are met, a student can’t really focus on academics.
The help liaisons provide can make a huge difference. Once that hungry high schooler got registered for Mckinney-Vento services, Takahashi was able to get him free meals, shelter and an Orca card so he could get to and from school. That student is now enrolled in college.
Dennis Grad (left) is the education liaison for Auburn. He calls the counselors he has recruited in his district’s 22 schools “mini liaisons” because of the crucial role they play in helping him find homeless kids in his district. “There’s all kinds of resources out there [for homeless kids],” says Grad. “But if you don’t know the kids who need them, it doesn’t help much.”
Identifying students in need is never easy, but it gets harder as kids get older and more concerned about the opinions of their peers. Plastering posters in the school and around the community just doesn’t cut it. “There’s a lot of pride,” said Cheryl Chikalla, education liaison for the Lake Washington school district. “A lot of folks won’t admit to [being homeless], especially when the grade level is higher.”
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