Amy Perusse, who has worked as the Everett School District’s Kids in Transition coordinator for seven years, has been recognized by Education Week as one of 11 “Leaders to Learn From.” (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Amy Perusse, who has worked as the Everett School District’s Kids in Transition coordinator for seven years, has been recognized by Education Week as one of 11 “Leaders to Learn From.” (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

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‘Quite an honor’ for district’s champion of homeless students

Once a teen mom, Everett’s Kids in Transition coordinator wins national recognition by Education Week.

Leaders To Learn From, that’s what Education Week calls its project highlighting 11 people around the country who go beyond the call of duty for students.

There’s a Navajo Nation school superintendent boosting kids’ access to laptops and Wi-Fi. In South Carolina, a school district leader aims to hire more Black male teachers. For two administrators in Detroit, it’s finding ways to empower parents.

“You read those stories — wow,” said Amy Perusse, Kids in Transition (KIT) coordinator for the Everett School District. Her priority is meeting the needs of students who are homeless.

She’s one of the 11 featured in Leaders To Learn From. “It was quite an honor,” said Perusse, who was chosen from nearly 300 nominees submitted to Education Week, an independent organization covering news in K-12 education.

As KIT coordinator, Perusse leads the district’s McKinney-Vento programs.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act requires that school districts ensure homeless children are identified, enrolled in school, and linked to services, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

In the midst of a pandemic, the challenges of finding those kids are greater — as are the numbers.

“Students are identified daily, it’s a snapshot in time,” Perusse said. The Everett district averages 1,100 students who are homeless, including about 200 unaccompanied youth — those not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian — annually. By the end of an ordinary school year, those numbers tend to drop as families get help to find stable housing.

Because of COVID, and families not being in close contact with schools, many didn’t get that support, Perusse said. This school year, there are about 60 more students than last year identified as homeless. “We’re seeing it now as they return to hybrid learning,” Perusse said.

Helping at-risk children has been central to her 22 years in education, which included nearly five years at Denney Juvenile Justice Center. There, as on-time graduation success coordinator, she worked to transition kids from detention back to school. Changes in juvenile justice have decreased the number of kids at Denney.

“It’s way different now. It’s a big deal to have 20 kids there. It used to be 80,” she said. In the juvenile justice system, Perusse said she met kids who’d lost hope, even some in high school who asked “What’s a credit?”

“We’re trying to remove barriers for children,” she said.

While the term homeless certainly includes those living in cars or shelters, it covers all “children and youth who lack a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence,” Perusse said. That includes those staying with relatives or in a motel. Perusse spoke of families, crammed in motel rooms, who can’t afford moving costs — first and last months’ rent and a damage deposit — although the parents have jobs.

The Everett District, she said, is helped by partnerships with the Everett Housing Authority, Housing Hope, Cocoon House and other agencies. There’s also assistance from Washington Kids in Transition, a nonprofit started in the Edmonds district. “We’ve granted wishes,” Perusse said, including prom tickets and an art kit.

“I’ve had kids ask for a pillow,” she said, adding “these are things we wouldn’t be able to do with federal funds.”

Perusse, 46, understands too well the needs of at-risk families.

“I’m one of those turn-around stories,” she said. “I was pregnant at 15, had a baby at 16, had a second baby and was married at 17.” With all of that, she graduated on time from Scriber Lake High School in the Edmonds district. By the time her marriage ended, she had three children.

“I was a young mama, and went through horrible things I would not wish on anybody,” she said. As a single mom with three kids, she saw a job post for a paraeducator at Scriber Lake and thought, “I wonder if I can do that?”

She’s now been with the Everett district for 11 years, seven of them as KIT coordinator.

In the Education Week article, by Sarah D. Sparks, Perusse recalled that when her marriage fell apart, there were times “my own children would have qualified” for McKinney-Vento.

”Perusse’s experience was like that of many of the families who become homeless but often fly under schools’ radar,” Sparks wrote in the Education Week profile. The honorees, including Perusse, will take part in a three-day virtual conference, May 10-12.

Now, nearly a year after the pandemic shuttered Washington schools, the Everett district’s youngest children are back in classrooms. Remote learning continues for older students.

School staff have delivered supplies to a family in an RV parked outside a grandparent’s house. Transportation is provided so children can stay in their own Everett schools, even while doubling up with relatives elsewhere.

“We’re working really hard to reach all students,” Perusse said.

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