USD 383 tackles puzzle of caring for homeless students

By Bryan Richardson

Stan Ward, USD 383 coordinator of federal/state funds and grants, leaned back in his chair when the subject of money for homeless students came up.

Ward and program coordinator Cheryl McCormick explained the dynamics of the program, which is designed to make sure homeless students are enrolled in school – and have access to things like school supplies, health services, tutoring and transportation.

However, funding has become an issue.

The district received $18,155 in grant funding this year. With money allocated from Title I funds that go to disadvantaged children, the total funding is around $30,000.

“Those two funds together can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the needs of these kids,” Ward said.

Ward said funding hasn’t matched the exponential growth of students identified as homeless.

The district identified approximately 25 homeless students in 2006, but that number jumped to 71 in 2007. Last year, the district had 239 homeless students, and the number is expected to exceed 250 this school year.

In the district, 72 percent of students defined as homeless are sharing housing with others, 20 percent are living in shelters and 8 percent fall into another category.

The grant requires the school district to provide services, but Ward said the program’s funding at this point is probably maxed out.

Title I funding is now facing continuous cuts due to sequestration. The district is getting about $1.03 million in Title I funds this year, a decrease of $85,762 from 2010-11.

“Like with everything else, we have an unfunded mandate, and the limited money we do have keeps being reduced,” Ward said.

“Welcome to education,” McCormick added.

The definition of homelessness was set by the federal government with the McKinney-Vento Act, which passed in 1987.

It is based on people living in an unsheltered situation, sharing housing with someone other than the student’s parent(s), living in a motel or hotel, shelter or transitional housing, or substandard housing, or living alone.

USD 383 first utilized the grant for the 2006-07 school year.

Despite the McKinney-Vento law being in place since 1987, Ward said receiving the grant allowed for USD 383 to finally provide an official service for the students.

“One of the good things that happened was we developed better relationships with the social service agencies,” he said. “When we got the grant, we did not have services for these kids even though it was a federal law.”

It soon became apparent that the problem is much larger than the district realized.

“Even though we estimate we’ll probably have 250 kids in the school system that we know of now, we probably have 500 total in the city,” Ward said.

Those involved in the program attribute embarrassment as a factor in everybody not being identified.

McCormick said there are a combination of things involved, some related to the economy.

But teachers had to be educated about who would qualify for the program, and that has led to the increased numbers.

“In the very initial phases of being awarded the grant, we had to really work on identifying our younger population: our preschool kids, our Head Start kids,” she said.

McCormick said most social workers and counselors should be familiar with a student’s situation if they qualify for the program.

“But when there is a question, I investigate to ensure that they do qualify or don’t qualify for services,” she said.

McCormick gave an example of several families living together as something that would need to be sorted out.

A parent being on the lease would disqualify a child from receiving the service, while the other children under the roof would qualify. Ward added that staying in a hotel or living together by choice also means you can’t be counted.

As the numbers grow, Ward said the district is becoming more reliant on community help.

“If it weren’t for the community support, we wouldn’t have a chance of serving the needs of these kids,” he said.

There’s a room in the Lee Elementary annex where the district collects goods, clothing, school supplies and hygiene supplies. Some of those items come from the Ogden Friendship House, of which Diana Chapel is the director and pastor.

Chapel said the relationship with USD 383 started with helping students at Ogden Elementary get the things they needed. She said the house started providing new clothes and shoes about a year and a half ago.

“It’s hard to put your finger on how many homeless kids there are because they’re not sleeping under the bridge,” Chapel said. “They might be couch surfing at a friend’s, two or three families maybe together in an apartment or any number of things.”

Chapel said she would like to see the community get more involved.

“I wish our area churches would do like we do in Ogden and adopt a neighborhood school,” she said.

McCormick spoke of a neighboring district that has a landlord who donated a small apartment for temporary use by a family in need.

“We’re not there yet, but we know this community will step up to that,” she said.

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