Editor’s Note: This is part of a special report that looks at the growing number of homeless students in Enumclaw schools. Today we look at the financial impact on the district of getting children to classes, as well as take a closer look at who the students are. Tomorrow, learn how the district tries to meet their needs, and the psychological effect homelessness has on children. Patch partnered with Investigate West for this report.
At night, they live in campgrounds, a fifth-wheel trailer, maybe doubled up with family or friends. Some sleep in shelters or transitional housing.
In the morning, these children ranging from elementary school to high school age join their classmates at their desks in Enumclaw schools.
This year, there are 32 homeless students that the knows of. (See .) They’re less than 1 percent of the students in the district, but if trends continue, the number is expected to grow, and that presents challenges to the district.
In 2009-10, there were nine students counted as homeless in the district, according to data gathered by Investigate West, which partnered with Patch for this story. That was up slightly from eight students in the 2006-07 year.
A report released in December shows 21,826 homeless students statewide in the 2009-2010 school year, a 30 percent increase in three years.
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. The districts are required to track how many students are living in motels, doubled up with relatives, in cars or in shelters. (Click here for a breakdown of where Enumclaw students stayed in 2009-10.)
Aaron Stanton, director of student support services for Enumclaw schools, said that in the past, the district had not been as diligent about keeping accurate numbers, which might account for the large jump in homeless students for the 2010-11 school year.
Tracking Homelessness a Difficult Task
Many families don't want to be considered homeless, Stanton said, and won’t identify themselves that way during registration.
"There's a reluctance to admitting you're homeless," Stanton said. "It's embarrassing, and depending on circumstances, there's an uneasiness about asking for support."
So identifying homeless students falls to the teachers and counselors who interact directly with the families. Counselors this year are better informed about how to identify and track a homeless family.
"We're catching kids at enrollment," Stanton said. "The counselors are identifying the parents who need help. ... It's likely in the past that some counselors knew of homeless situations but didn't report them."
Teachers, too, look for signs that indicate something is amiss, such as a child who repeatedly wears the same clothes or appears consistently tired, he said.
The district is trying hard to capture as much valid information as possible about its homeless students to better serve them in accordance with the federal act.
Transportation an Unfunded Federal Mandate
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 it means they 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 Enumclaw, many homeless students move out of the district, particularly in cases where they are doubling up with family or friends. The district works primarily with neighboring school districts including Auburn, Maple Valley and Puyallup to optimize routes to get students to and from their district school, Stanton said. The federal act doesn’t specify how far the district must transport students. According to Stanton, the farthest a student travels this year is to and from Tacoma. Outside of a one-hour, one-way commute, the district won’t consider transportation, and the student would need to enroll in the district where he or she lives.
In cases where, for example, a family of siblings attends schools with different dismissal times, making busing difficult, the district also contracts with a private transporter called HopeLine to provide taxicabs instead.
All this adds up for the district. Tim Madden, director of business and operations for the district, said that in this academic year, the district has budgeted $20,600 solely for this purpose. But it’s largely a guessing game.
“Nobody plans to be homeless during a school year,” he said. “The transportation isn’t meant to be a permanent solution. Hopefully being homeless is short term and the transportation is there until the family is able to get stable or move away.”
In the 2009-10 school year, the district budgeted $14,500 for homeless transportation but spent just $9,850, Madden said. This year, as of the end of May, just $8,697.89 had been spent.
The federal act does provide an option for school districts to apply for grants to supplement the transportation costs; Enumclaw applied two years ago but at the time didn’t have enough homeless students to be awarded a grant, Stanton said.
The district will apply again. “The district needs to have a certain level of need, and we’re seeing the numbers are increasing,” Stanton said. “There are more families in more dire circumstances, and we want to communicate better with families that they don't need to pull kids out of school.”
The rationale for keeping kids in their original school is that it helps their learning.
A small 2006 pilot study by the Washington State Department of Transportation found that while homeless kids typically had lower grades and Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores than non-homeless students, the grades and scores were better among those homeless students who got to stay in their original schools.
Though there are concerns about tightened school district budgets trickling down from the state, Madden said funding for homeless transportation will not be eliminated. “It’s not something we’ll cut,” he said. “We’re required to provide this service, and we want to.”
Stanton agreed. “The kids want to stay in school,” he said. “And the teachers don’t want to let go of the kids."