homeless students

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InvestigateWest launches first collaboration with regional Patch sites

InvestigateWest is happy to announce the launch of its first collaboration with Patch, a network of online local news sites. A team of InvestigateWest reporters and photographers spent more than six months examining issues of family homelessness in Washington State. The resulting award-winning Generation Homeless project looked at family homelessness through the lens of young adults – one of the most under-recognized segments driving the surge in homeless families in Washington, as well as the impact of this trend on children and school systems around the state.

Joining us in localizing this effort even further is Patch, a network of online local news sites. Patch reporters and editors dug even deeper at the local level to see how this disturbing trend is playing out in school communities throughout King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

Edmonds Patch, for example, drilled down to see how an underfunded federal mandate to provide transportation for homeless students is affecting the school district's budget.

Enumclaw Patch looked at the difficulties schools face in tracking and identfying homeless familes in order to provide services.

Kirkland Patch looked at what it's like for kids to be homeless on the East Side.

These and other stories to come this week demonstrate the power of linking investigative and community journalism. They take a big, nationwide issue, and show how it is hittng each of us, where we live.


School districts struggle to help homeless kids as number grows statewide


School districts around the state are grappling with how to help growing populations of homeless students, even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.

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.

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 the 2008-09 school year (most recent year for which data available), schools reported 20,780 homeless students statewide, up from 8,141 in the 2003-04 school year.

Of the 10 districts with the highest numbers of homeless students in the state, seven reported increases from 2006-07 to 2008-09. Bellingham, for example, was up 84 percent, Shelton, 39 percent, and Wenatchee, 18 percent.

The Communal Impact of Homelessness

Last week, I sat down with LaKesha Knatt, program development manager at First Place, an elementary and middle school designed especially for homeless children. First Place has been recognized for excellence in curriculum development, and relief services. It  can boast of successful graduates who have made names for themselves in local business and community activism. With a team of dedicated and highly qualified staff, First Place is more than equipped to care for the needs, educationally, emotionally, and psychologically, of its students. 

But as the daughter of a woman who works in education, and a peer of many local community volunteers and activists, I wondered if programs such as First Place offer anything in the way of psychological support for the very people who are assisting those in need—teachers, administrators, case managers, counselors, volunteers. I asked Knatt if her peers were offered, or required to take, on-site emotional-social counseling to ensure they can cope with hearing and witnessing daily tales of violence, neglect and abuse, given that such fields often see a high turnover rate.

Knatt smiled and replied, “You know, we don’t. That’s something I should really talk to the team about.” First Place requires intensive and innovative training for their teachers, both at the beginning of the school year and at mid-year to help teachers and staff respond best to crisis situations, and has an on-site physchologist for emotional support.

After being in First Place for only an hour, the training’s impact is clear—all staff speak with students with the utmost of care and sensitivity, ensuring them they are in a safe place where they are expected to succeed. Because First Place is entirely privately funded, their limited resources naturally and rightly go to places of highest need—providing education, food, clothing, and housing assistance for homeless families.