County schools work to keep homeless kids in class

ARLINGTON — In Legion Park, 126 plywood gingerbread children are grouped together in a spot where anyone who makes a trip downtown can see them.

The cookie figures represent the number of homeless students who attended Arlington public schools last year. Many of these students bunked with friends or relatives, some stayed in motels or crowded emergency shelters and a few slept in vehicles or otherwise on the street.

The varied reasons for the high number of homeless students in Arlington — and all around Snohomish and Island counties — include lost jobs, foreclosures, costly illnesses, rising costs of living, declining funding of social services to prevent homelessness and teens separated from their families and living on their own.

According to numbers released this month by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, there were 27,390 students in the state reported as homeless in the 2011-12 school year. The number is up more than 5 percent from 2010-11 and up more than 46 percent from 2007-08.

At Snohomish County school districts for the 2011-12 school year, there were more than 2,500 homeless students enrolled. Everett, with 18,633 enrolled students that year, had the highest number of homeless students with 824.

Though there were at one point 126 homeless students in Arlington last school year, the current trend is showing that fewer families are homeless as the economy begins to improve, said Arlington school spokeswoman Andrea Conley. So far this year, the district has about 99 students who are considered homeless.

The ages of these students vary from district to district. In Arlington, with a total enrollment of 5,402 for the 2011-12 school year, of the 126 homeless students, 54 were elementary age. As in all public school districts in the state, Arlington keeps track of each student who has no fixed or regular residence.

“We look at each case individually and offer services to help each family,” Conley said. “The goal is to keep the kids in school and keep that consistency in the lives of these students.”

The district’s homeless student liaison oversees services that include tutoring, early childhood education, school supplies, transportation to schools the students may have attended before they became homeless, free meals, waived sports team fees, and better access to health care, such as a dental checkup with the Smile Mobile, Conley said.

“It’s been a really tough time on our small community,” Conley said. “There is evidence of an upward swing now, so that is great.”

Arlington United Church, with help from the Kiwanis Club and Arlington Arts Council, put up the gingerbread figures in the park. Some of the figures include statements by students about what it’s like to be homeless, said church member Steve Edwards.

Arlington United is one of 14 congregations in the region that received a Faith and Family Homelessness grant from Seattle University and the Gates Foundation to educate people about the issues of family homelessness, Edwards said.

The grant money that Arlington United Church received also is to be used to “increase the number of voices demanding fair and equitable public policy at local, regional, state and national levels,” Edwards said.

What is needed are faith-based and secular partnerships that can bring about change, Edwards said. “Obviously those are laudable, but lofty goals.”

The lack of a stable home puts tremendous pressure on homeless students. Rates of moving place to place are higher than students in homes, absentee rates are higher, health problems are more prevalent and graduation rates are lower, Edwards said.

Collecting and reporting homeless numbers is a requirement of the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which ensures that homeless children and teens have access to public education. Better reporting has led to more awareness about homelessness, said Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction spokesman Nathan Olson.

McKinney-Vento defines a student as homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. In practical terms, the student is classified as homeless if he or she lives in emergency or transitional shelters; motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds; shared housing caused by a loss of of a place to live or economic hardship; hospitals where children have been abandoned or are awaiting foster care placement; cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or other spots not ordinarily used as places for people to sleep.

Under McKinney-Vento, homeless students must be given the same access to education as other students. Where possible, the student can remain in the district he or she was in before becoming homeless and is provided transportation to and from school. Washington state receives about $950,000 a year from the federal government to help homeless students.

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

A community forum about student homelessness in the Arlington area is set for 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at Arlington United Church, 338 N. MacLeod Ave. Members of the City Council, school board and community volunteers are expected to attend. The public is encouraged to attend the meeting as well. More info: 360-435-3259.

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