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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.

By Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

February 04, 2014.

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.

View this story online at: http://crosscut.com/2014/02/04/Kidsatrisk/118430/public-school-liaisons-help-homeless-students/

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Printed on April 24, 2014