The Washington School District currently has at least 26 homeless students, and that number is expected to climb as the school year continues.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Judy Straatmann, who serves as the homeless coordinator, said the district has averaged about 40-plus homeless students the last two years.
The official count is taken at the end of the school year.
“I predict that by the end of the year our numbers will be at about 40 or so,” Straatmann told The Missourian. “We did have a spike in 2010-11 with 73 homeless students and I think that really had to do with the depressed economy at that time.”
Although the economy has not fully rebounded, Straatmann said homeless numbers have at least stabilized.
Definition of Homeless
Federal law defines students as homeless if they lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” That includes those living in a shelter, a motel, a car or with another family.
Straatmann said that definition of homeless might surprise some people.
“It’s not just someone living on the streets or in a car, although we did have a student living in a car for a very short period of time until we found out about the situation and could step in to help,” she said.
Oftentimes, Straatmann said it’s students or families who are living with friends or relatives due to a job loss, housing loss or some other economic hardship, and it may mean they are moving around to different places.
The breakdown of the 26 students so far this year include 20 in the elementary division and six in the secondary division.
In 2010-11, the number of elementary students who were homeless was 43, with 30 in the secondary division.
Any number is too high, Straatmann said, but the Washington School District’s homeless population is very small compared to the larger St. Louis and St. Charles County school districts.
“Many of those school districts have homeless coordinators who do nothing else,” she said. “It’s a full-time job because their numbers are so high.”
Springfield public schools have at least 551 homeless students this year, an increase from the 517 reported by December of last year.
The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that the number of homeless students in Missouri grew from 19,940 in 2010-11 to 24,549 during 2011-12 — 2.1 percent of the total state enrollment in public schools.
Across Missouri, 75 percent of homeless students are “doubled up,” 15 percent are in shelters, 6 percent are in hotels and motels and 4 percent are unsheltered, meaning they likely sleep in cars, tents or parks, according to the Associated Press.
Always on Lookout
Straatmann said teachers, guidance counselors and principals are always on the lookout for a student who may not have permanent housing.
“We have trained our team to really listen at enrollment time and ask questions, and other times it might be something a teacher overhears or another student tells someone,” she said.
“Also, when a student enrolls or a parent makes a change on their child’s information sheet, there are questions on the form that will trigger that information being sent to the district office so we can determine if they meet the McKinney-Vento guidelines/criteria,” she said.
The McKinney-Vento Act is part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 which guarantees homeless children and youth an education equal to what they would receive if not homeless.
Straatmann said it’s important to know who is homeless because those students are at risk of falling behind or dropping out.
“Homeless students also are eligible for extra services, such as free breakfast and lunch, or transportation so they can stay in their original school even if their family moves outside the district,” she said. “We also have a backpack program that sends food home with children on the weekends.”
Once a child is identified, school officials also will try and determine if a student needs a coat and gloves, and other necessities.
“We have many community services that we try and direct them to, depending on their needs,” she said.
Sometimes, Straatmann said a family has just fallen on hard times and eventually their situation improves. Other times, it may be a family going in and out of homeless status for a variety of reasons. And there are situations when a student is no longer living at their home due to any number of reasons.
“Our job is to determine if the student meets the federal guidelines and then to make sure their educational needs are being met,” she said. “We don’t judge.”
Straatmann said the district has homeless brochures and posters up at doctors offices, food pantries and other locations to inform the public so someone needing assistance can call or if someone knows of a student or family struggling they can alert school officials.