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

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

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.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joseph Sutton-Holcomb

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.