Graduates and family mingle outside following Sequoia High School’s graduation ceremony held at the Everett Civic Auditorium, last June in Everett. A proposed apartment near the school, operated by Housing Hope, would provide housing to homeless students at Sequoia and throughout the school district. (Andy Bronson / Herald file photo)

Graduates and family mingle outside following Sequoia High School’s graduation ceremony held at the Everett Civic Auditorium, last June in Everett. A proposed apartment near the school, operated by Housing Hope, would provide housing to homeless students at Sequoia and throughout the school district. (Andy Bronson / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Assuring diplomas by solving student homelessness

Everett Public Schools and Housing Hope are partnering to reduce homelessness among children.

By The Herald Editorial Board

With a four-year graduation rate in 2018 of 95.7 percent, Everett Public Schools has among the highest success rates among the state’s 294 school districts. Yet even as it strives to get as close to 100 percent as possible, each percentage-point gain becomes more difficult than the last, as the district addresses the circumstances that frustrate student outcomes.

The homelessness of students and their families, for example, creates daunting barriers to success. Among the Everett district’s three main high schools and its alternative program at Sequoia High School, the graduation rate last year for homeless students was just under 85 percent, still better than the statewide average of 55 percent.

A lack of reliable shelter can mean frequent moves for students and changes in schools, significant loss of time in the classroom and concurrent problems with poor physical and mental health, poverty, hunger and exposure to domestic violence.

According to a recent report by Schoolhouse Washington, of nearly 41,000 homeless students in the state:

34 percent are proficient in English language arts, far below the 60 percent rate for housed students;

24 percent are proficient in math; below the 49 percent mark for peers with stable housing; and

62 percent are attending school regularly, compared with 86 percent of housed students.

Under a federal definition, students — living with or without families — are counted as homeless if they are living on the street, in a shelter, in vehicles, motels, campgrounds or “couch-surfing,” sharing housing with family friends or others.

Nationwide, the incidence of homelessness among children has doubled in the past decade.

Everett schools have the largest population of homeless students in the county, with more than 1,250 during the 2017-18 school year, trailed that year by Edmonds schools with about 600 and Marysville with more than 400. There are homeless students enrolled at every school in the district, with the largest populations at Everett, Cascade and Sequoia high schools, Evergreen Middle School and Hawthorne Elementary.

There’s the need; here’s a solution that can begin to address homelessness among students in the Everett school district:

Earlier this week, the Everett School Board voted to approve a 75-year lease for a little less than three acres of property west of Sequoia to Housing Hope, a nonprofit agency that since 1987 has provided stable housing, supportive services and job training throughout Snohomish County.

Housing Hope has plans to build an apartment complex with at least 34 units of low- and moderate-income housing that will be prioritized for homeless students and their families. Homeless students enrolled at Sequoia — some of them with children of their own — would be housed first, followed by those at other Everett district schools, those attending other school districts, then students of families meeting low-income and other requirements.

Fred Safstrom, chief executive for Housing Hope, said during Tuesday’s school board meeting and in an interview with The Herald Editorial Board, that the lease is contingent on Housing Hope’s successful navigation of a public land-use process with the city, one that is starting first with meetings with the proposal’s neighbors.

Construction could begin in mid-2023 with completion by mid-2025. The site is at Norton Avenue and 36th Street, once the location of Jackson Grade School until it was demolished in the 1950s. Safstrom, who attended South Junior High before it became Sequoia, said the property was known then as the “upper field.”

Along with housing, the site will also include about 10,000 square feet of space for Housing Hope’s Tomorrow’s Hope Child Development Center, now located at the agency’s main offices at 5910 Evergreen Way.

The school district, which is leasing the property for $1 a year, will approve the facility’s design, but Housing Hope will be responsible for property and other taxes, insurance, utilities, construction, maintenance and operation costs. The agreement includes options to extend the lease after 75 years.

Safstrom expects some opposition from neighbors, understanding some might have a preference for a little-used patch of grass rather than the addition of more families to the neighborhood. Similar projects in the city and elsewhere in the county have faced such opposition, but Housing Hope has a record of responsible management of its facilities throughout the county — including two in the neighborhood — and has been responsive to the concerns of neighbors.

The project, which doesn’t have a construction cost estimate yet, would seek funding through city-administered state grants, tax credits and a capital campaign that seeks support from other public and private funding sources.

The school district’s lease also represents a significant contribution, though this shouldn’t be confused with a gift of public property; as allowed by state law, the lease is made with the specific public purpose of improving outcomes for the district’s homeless students.

Everett Public Schools — like all school districts — has the responsibility of ensuring graduation and good educational outcomes for all students.

But the lease with Housing Hope will allow both to address the needs of stable housing and academic success for students and can make lasting strides against the cycle of poverty in Everett.

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