Northshore School District, state sees increase in homeless students

Northshore School District - Contributed art
Northshore School District
— image credit: Contributed art

Most people envision panhandlers and adults sleeping in doorways in downtown Seattle when they think of the homeless. The vision of a homeless first grader is not readily available to most.

But the numbers recently released by the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office paint a stark picture of homeless students in local school districts, including Northshore, in 2011-2012.

"For the four Eastside school districts I looked at, 686 students were identified as homeless during the 2011-12 school year," said policy Director Kelly Rider of the Housing Development Consortium.

And while the Lake Washington School District (LWSD) leads the way with 213 estimated homeless kids, the Northshore School District (NSD) has 151 homeless students. The striking part is that 25 are unsheltered, meaning that they do not sleep under a roof.

The Director of Student Services for the Northshore School District, Dr. Chris Bigelow said that last year's number was more accurately 160 and the district is currently assisting 127 students who are considered homeless.

"This number changes daily due to the moving of students," said Bigelow.

President and CEO of Friends of Youth Terry Pottmeyer said that the numbers are high but they do not represent all the kids in the community who are homeless.

"A lot of kids don't report that they are in need of stable housing," said Pottmeyer, whose Eastside non-profit organization is committed to helping homeless kids, including in the Bothell and Kenmore area.

It can be very difficult for kids to come forward and some may seek to keep their situation concealed from school administration.

"Of course, as with most homelessness data, these numbers too are likely under-estimates, as it only includes students who identified themselves as homeless to a school staff member," said Rider. "Many other kids may be living in their family’s car, for instance, but be unwilling to admit it to their peers or teachers."

But Bigelow stressed that the school districts do everything they can to identify homeless students.

"I would not say it is underreported, nor is it just up to students," said Bigelow. "The McKinney-Vento law requires school districts to identify homeless children and youth proactively, stabilize their education, and link them to supportive services … unfortunately, funding for the program has remained flat while the numbers of homeless children and youth have grown exponentially.”

The most striking thing is how many are in the younger age levels. Seventeen kindergartners were listed as homeless, while nearly 40 were between grades 1-3. The LWSD listed 20 pre-kindergarten students, while the NSD had just two and Issaquah had zero. Bellevue had the most kindergartners with 20 homeless kids. NSD had the most in sixth grade, 17, and the least in eighth grade, three.

"The importance of identifying those students and providing services shows academically," said Bigelow. "Research indicates that child homelessness has a negative impact on child development, homeless children are eight times more likely to be asked to repeat a grade, three times more likely to be placed in special education classes and twice as likely to score lower on standardized tests. These students face a range of problems regarding schooling, from finding a way to get to school, to having the appropriate clothing and finding a quiet place to study. Research also shows these students need months to catch up if they change schools."

Some might expect the numbers to spike as the age levels increase. But the numbers actually lessened with no grade level between 8-11 having double digits. There were 12 NSD seniors who reported being homeless, compared to 23 in the LWSD.

"Many older kids want to continue to fit in," said Pottmeyer. "They want to do everything they can to appear normal and won't self report. Some are couch surfing and living with someone else. They don't think they are homeless."

Bigelow said that when administrators see the signs they need to ask the hard questions.

"(We need to) ask the student 'is there something going on? Are you moving around a lot?' And if they can help. We should not expect kids to be able to resolve adult situations," said Bigelow. "Sometimes it’s just a matter of listening and watching, for example those kids who never eat lunch and say, ‘Oh, I’m just not hungry!’ Well, there may be another reason they’re not eating lunch … School secretaries, registrars, counselors are first-line detectives. No fixed address? That is an easy tip-off."

Pottmeyer said that during the past two years Friends of Youth has seen a dramatic 48 percent increase in the use of their services. The organization has outreach vans and a new drop-in shelter in Redmond where homeless youth can get a shower and food among other essential support. Friends of Youth also have an underage home in Kenmore for boys with five beds and a home for girls in Bellevue.

McKinney-Vento defines a student as homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. In practical terms, the student is classified as homeless if he or she lives in: Emergency or transitional shelters; motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds; shared housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship; hospitals secondary to abandonment or awaiting foster care placement; cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or similar situations; or public or private places not ordinarily used as sleeping accommodations for human beings.

Washington state receives about $950,000 per year from the federal government to help homeless students. That money is given to districts in the form of competitive grants, with money going to districts with the greatest need.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction stated that 27,390 students reported being homeless statewide during the 2011-2012 school year. That number is up 5.1 percent from 2010-11 and up 46.7 percent from 2007-08.

"To find a trend all you have to do is look at the lingering effects of the recession," said Bigelow. "The population of homeless students across the country exploded during the recession and related housing crisis and that it has continued to grow steadily as the economy has settled. I am not optimistic about seeing relief anytime soon but our communities are doing what it can to help."


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