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Editorial: Joint program connecting homeless families, school

A multi-partner program is removing barriers that keep children out of school and caught in poverty.

By The Herald Editorial Board

There are an estimated 40,000 K-12 public school students in Washington state without permanent stable housing, which means they and their families are living on the street or in vehicles, staying in motels or campgrounds or “couch-surfing,” sharing housing with family friends or others, according to state records.

Everett Public Schools serves more than 1,050 of those students. That number has dropped about 150 to 200 students in the last couple of years, but with a pandemic moratorium on evictions expected to be lifted in June, that number is likely to rise again soon. And that has increased the attention on delivering services to families most at risk in terms of housing stability.

Homelessness — and the lack of stability it imposes on families — has far-reaching effects for all members of a family, but especially for children because it often results in school absenteeism, adversely affecting learning, test scores and advancement, as well as distancing children from a range of social services available to them there.

“When a student stops attending school, it closes the door to a multitude of living-wage careers and further complicates their pathway out of poverty,” said Monica Wilson, a school psychologist who works with Housing Hope, the nonprofit agency that provides housing for homeless and low-income families throughout Snohomish County.

“Missed school affects early school success, including learning to read by third grade and achieving in middle school and graduating from high school and college,” Wilson said.

The work to address absenteeism and get kids back in class has largely been left to the schools themselves and occasionally to housing and other social service agencies working with families, Wilson said, and not always with the best results.

A collaborative task: But a pilot program has brought together schools and their staffs with housing providers, social service agencies and organizations, as well as employment and post-secondary education groups, parenting coaches and mental health therapists.

It’s name is a mouthful: Improving School Attendance for Families Experiencing Transition/Homelessness, but the program is now entering its fourth year, and the United Way of Snohomish County has renewed its grant through 2023 as part of its focus of ending the cycle of poverty in the county.

Wilson, who serves as the collaborative coordinator for ISA, said the program has 114 families enrolled — half from communities of color and 60 percent with at least one family member with a disability — coordinating services, providing counseling, arranging transportation and doing what’s necessary to get children back in school on a regular schedule.

The program serves students in 24 schools from Everett and four other school districts, providing services and tracking progress, said Wilson, who gathered online last week with parents and others from the school district and other agencies to discuss the program and its successes.

Outcomes for two families: No parent willingly keeps a child from school, but the complications of homelessness and poverty can make it difficult for parents to focus on more than the current moment’s most pressing need.

Teresa said she worked two jobs to keep herself and her children in a motel room, and was mentally exhausted most days. When her kids started missing school, ISA assigned a family advocate, helping not only with getting her kids back in school, but help finding first a shelter and later a three-bedroom apartment.

“It didn’t take any convincing to accept the help getting my kids into school,” Teresa said.

But another mother, Heather, admitted she was more reluctant to accept help, mostly because previous attempts to connect her with services weren’t well-explained and involved too many separate agencies and contacts.

“You’d have to contact like 20 different people to get your needs met and wait to hear back from them,” Heather said. ISA streamlined the process, assigning one person who helped guide her to the resources she and her children needed. For example, rather than having to arrange transportation to take herself or children to counseling appointments, the services came to them.

One of her three children, a daughter then attending Evergreen Middle School, was missing school, suffering from anxiety and later was diagnosed with a stomach problem, she said. Once suggested for a directed education plan, her daughter’s regular return to classes and help with her anxiety and medical issues quickly turned her grades around.

“My daughter ended up doing really well in school. She’s been on the honor roll for two years,” Heather said of her daughter, now enrolled in the Lakewood School District.

“When kids get the support and confidence, they succeed.”

Running for the bus: Everett School District staff are fully engaged and enthusiastic about the program.

Kathy Stillwell, principal at Everett’s Garfield Elementary, recently went to a shelter — an alarm clock in hand for a parent — to make sure a student got on her bus that morning for her first day at her new school. With the student running late, Stillwell said she asked the bus driver to wait while she ran in to find the child.

“She literally ran to the bus — I’m going to cry telling this story — it was such a culmination of so many things to get this family out of their car and into a shelter,” she said.

The pandemic — not surprisingly — has complicated getting kids online for remote instruction, especially as the district has worked to supply families with laptops, WiFi “hot spots” and the technical trouble-shooting to get online lessons working, Stillwell said.

It’s a tremendous amount of work, but worth it, said Barb Dubin, a school social worker at Garfield.

“Every time a child transfers to a new school, there’s a six-month learning loss,” Dubin said. And because housing insecurity can result in families making several moves in a year, that loss adds up. But the connections provided in school are vitally important, she said.

“School becomes the anchor for the child, even when housing is in transition,” she said.

More than getting kids back in school, ISA has also helped direct change at the school district level, said Chad Golden, who oversees the district’s student support programs.

Teachers and support staffs are building relationships and learning how to build teams around families to address student needs. While parents and students are learning, so are school district employees.

“We’re learning together,” he said.

The report card: Now three years in, Wilson said the program is making a difference for children and showing results.

Using the Community Health and Well-Being Monitor developed by the Providence Institute for Healthy Communities, ISA, since it began its work in 2017, has seen improved numbers for parent satisfaction with school attendance, a drop in housing and transportation insecurity and a decline in reports of domestic violence. By Providence’s metrics, well-being rose 32 percent for families enrolled in ISA.

ISA has worked, said Elise Herwig, coordinated for United Way’s Creating Open Roads to Equity program, because it has done more than help parents surmount barriers; it’s helping to lower those barriers for other students and families.

Work is ongoing — by Housing Hope and other agencies, by local and state governments and by builders — to improve housing availability and affordability.

Certainly, stable housing is vital to a family’s security and well-being, and should be a priority. But support from the community for ISA — through United Way, Housing Hope and other participants, including the YMCA, YWCA, Providence, Interfaith Family Shelter, Boys & Girls Club and others — will help serve the needs of children and families who are making the journey out of housing insecurity.

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