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Helping homeless students stay in school

157 homeless kids are enrolled in the Bellevue School District. Homeless Education Liaison Betty Takahashi helps find, feed, house and keep them in school.
Homeless students in the Bellevue School District have an advocate in Betty Takahashi.

Homeless students in the Bellevue School District have an advocate in Betty Takahashi. Allyce Andrews

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.”

This is precisely why assistance for homeless students is federally mandated, says David Delgado, youth advocate for the local nonprofit Peace for the Streets by Kids from the Streets (PSKS). Delgado, who was homeless himself from age 19 to 24, calls education level and employment status the two strongest predictors of long-term stability. Unemployed, uneducated kids are not set up for success later in life, but earning a high school diploma and landing a job are hard to do when you’re homeless.

“When you’re living in crisis, planning even two days ahead can be difficult,” says Delgado. “When young people go to school and take classes they start to think about their own future.”

The keystone guarantee for students under the Mckinny-Vento Act — the promise that liaisons spend a great deal of their time protecting — is a student’s right to attend his or her “school or origin.” No matter what. A newly homeless family will often be forced to find shelter far from their home. But students who experience this kind of dislocation have the right, under McKinney-Vento, to stay enrolled in the school they attended before they became homeless. That right includes free transportation to and from their original school. These rights are guaranteed regardless of where the students are living, even if they can’t provide a permanent address.  

Transportation is a huge challenge, and the strategies liaisons use to comply with the McKinney-Vento transportation provision differ dramatically. Each district has a personalized transportation program that gets kids to and from campus. In Bellevue, for example, Betty Takahashi uses school buses for homeless students who are still in the district. For those who have moved elsewhere, she relies on a combination of ORCA cards (for the older kids) and taxis. 

Dennis Grad doubles as the transportation director for the Auburn school district. (Liaisons often wear several hats.) Vintage bus posters decorate the walls of his office (left). Grad created an entirely in-house transit system in Auburn. Private drivers, employed by the school district, pick up every homeless student, even those living as far away as Lakewood. “Sometimes these kids are on the bus for up to an hour," says Grad, "but that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Transportation, he adds, is “the biggest hurdle” when it comes to keeping displaced kids connected to school. The need for transport is one symptom of a larger problem facing school liaisons, as well as advocates at local nonprofits: the lack of local resources for homeless people, specifically housing. Often, youth and families are forced out of their school district when they lose their homes because the only shelters available are located elsewhere.

The need for more emergency shelters and affordable housing programs, both in the greater Seattle area and in Washington as a whole, is well-documented. Increasing shelter was a key fixture of the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in King County, which was written back in 2005.

The authors of the 2005 plan predicted that homelessness would be “virtually ended” by the close of 2014. Instead, the state’s education liaisons serve 8,000 more homeless students today than they did back in the 2007-08 school year: 27,000 compared to less than 19,000. Things “just don’t seem to be getting better,” says Betty Takahashi.

In a 2013 article published in the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Courtney Lauren Anderson argues that it’s essential to think about housing issues and educational issues in tandem. A coordinated strategy “between teachers in schools and education professionals outside of schools” is the best way to create a stable academic environment for homeless kids. Ideally, the education professionals would work in concert with shelters and affordable housing facilities so that youth have resources at their disposal both on and off campus.

Beyond the basics of identifying homeless kids, getting them to school and helping them secure shelter and other basic needs, public officials and independent education advocates empasize raising awareness about homeless youth and battling the prejudice against them.

The issue of prejudice is especially tricky. Delgado of PSKS spoke enthusiastically about a “restorative justice” model he’s heard school district personnel discuss. The model, which educators have tried in schools throughout the nation aims to create a more nurturing environment for homeless students by recognizing that many of them are also members of other oppressed minorities.

“When you talk about homelessness, you very rarely hear about the demographics,” Delgado says. “Over 70 percent of the homeless population is people of color, and when you look at the schools, the people of color are being disciplined at a much higher rate.”

Making sure that far-flung populations of homeless youth get a good education sounds like a job for a large team of professionals, not a single person. Betty Takahashi isn’t even employed full-time; she works 32 hours a week. Still, she draws inspiration from the students she works with. “I have a homeless family whose kids never miss a day,” she marvels. “I have one or two high school students who are living in their car, and they still play sports.”

Talk to Takahashi or Grad for five minutes about their work, and their firm belief in education as a tool to break the cycle of homelessness will shine through. Still, seeing their hard work juxtaposed with rising numbers of homeless youth raises questions: What if Takahashi worked 40 hours per week? What if there was one homeless liaison per school, instead of one per district?

Crosscut's Kids@Risk series is made possible by generous support from the Raikes Foundation — and from Crosscut members.

Joseph is a full-time landscaper, part-time journalist and full time culture junkie discovering the hidden joys of life as a UW graduate in Seattle. When not taking care of plants or writing, he spends his time in the company of good friends enjoying film, music and the great outdoors.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 7:34 a.m. Inappropriate

So, when King County "ends homelessness" in 2015 will all these "homeless education liaisons" be layed off? Or will the Dems and public sector unions conspire to "require" additional positions for them to fill?

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

BlueLight, your confidence in the government's ability to end human suffering is charming, but naive. No rational person expects government services to end suffering, just to mitigate it.

coolpapa

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

So is the committee naive or dishonest?

http://cehkc.org/plan10/plan.aspx

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

The radical increase in homeless children -- like our deliberately, ever-more-fatally poisoned environment -- is another example of capitalism in action. Thus while Ms. Takahashi and Mr. Grad should be honored for their persistent efforts to ensure the education of homeless children, it should also be recognized that until capitalism and capitalist governance are replaced by socialism and socialist democracy, homelessness will continue to increase.

Nor are the ameliorative reforms urged in Mr. Sutton-Holcomb's excellent report likely to be enacted. That's because the One Party of Two Names -- the overt fascists who call themselves Republicans and the closet fascists who call themselves Democrats -- don't want such children educated. The Ruling Class politicians recognize that homeless kids, who have painfully experienced capitalism's true malevolence, could with education rise to become the vanguard of a socialist tomorrow.

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

"But students who experience this kind of dislocation have the right, under McKinney-Vento, to stay enrolled in the school they attended before they became homeless. That right includes free transportation to and from their original school. These rights are guaranteed regardless of where the students are living, even if they can’t provide a permanent address."

A major point overlooked in this story is the nearly $1 million going to support these students is spread across the entire state, and does not include funding for transportation. While the law (Thanks Pres. Bush!) requires districts to transport these children it provides no funding. So, the money comes right out of the classroom. In addition the State OSPI requires districts to transport them no matter how long they have to ride. An hour ride is average. There are many who must ride longer, very much longer. In very expensive cabs, using public transit, or on district school buses, cars or vans these kids get to school.

BlueLight (are you a cop?) or do you run a diner? No one is in this to make money, or steal your precious taxes. Everyone is doing the job because it's the law. Because kids deserve an education, despite what may befall their families. You really think a liaison who works a part time job is getting rich, or is a criminal? Check the flow on your oxygen tank, the air isn't getting to your brain sufficiently.

elbowman

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 6:13 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll note that one of the first charter applications approved by the Charter Commission - the only one that is student-specific and innovative in any real way - is First Place in Seattle. First Place is an already existing K-5 school that serves students in trauma (primarily homeless). They have the most dedicated staff and becoming charter will allow them the ability to grow.

Which is great; I've tutored there and seen their good work (and great students) first-hand.

Question is; if First Place was doing this work - for years - how come some philanthropist or foundation didn't give them support to expand this work sooner?

Something to ponder.

The other charters? Mostly KIPP wannabes - uniforms, ultra-strict (one of them even has a greeting that the students must say every single day to the administrator at the door)and pretty narrow curriculum. Not really an innovator in the bunch (unless you count Green Dot which likes to take over existing schools which would be a huge problem in space-hungry Seattle Schools).

westello

Posted Tue, Feb 4, 7:21 p.m. Inappropriate

"How come some philanthropist or foundation didn't give (First Place) support to expand?"

That's because, under capitalism, philanthropy has only two functions. The first and most important of these functions is protecting the Ruling Class by maintaining the status quo. In the case of homeless children -- who as I noted above have experienced first-hand capitalism's innate viciousness -- this means denying them the education that might enable them to correctly identify their oppressors and thereby mobilize effective resistance.

(The second function of capitalist philanthropy is of only minor significance to this discussion. That function is propaganda -- promoting the Big Lie that capitalists have humanitarian values and thereby concealing what capitalism truly is: infinite greed elevated to maximum virtue, literally the deliberate rejection of every humanitarian principle our species has ever articulated.)

Bottom line, to end homelessness, we'll have to first end capitalism.

Posted Sun, Feb 16, 6:24 p.m. Inappropriate

The definition used for “homeless students” comes from the “McKinney-Vento Grants.”Under this definition if Bill Gate’s kids were staying at Paul Allen’s home they would be counted as homeless, under the “Doubled Up” category. Approximately 2/3rds of the “homeless students” are included because they fall into this category.

A Democrat will tell you he can take you somewhere and show you a hungry child; to convince you we need to raise taxes. A Republican will just feed the kid!

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