Homeless student count edging up

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

School District 55 had 123 students it characterizes as homeless last school year.

That’s out of a total of between 2,300 and 2,400 students, and it is has grown a little each year since the district started keeping track in 2004 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. It’s about 20 from the 2006-07 school year.

Since the district started tracking the number it has gone up, although not by leaps and bounds, District 55 Health Services Coordinator Joan Pappin said. She said she’s sure that it has always been a problem in Sweet Home, but the district is getting better at identifying those students even though most of them don’t identify themselves as homeless.

That, coupled with economic conditions, probably explains why the numbers are going up, she said.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires districts to count and report the number of homeless students. Pappin serves as the district’s homeless liaison.

The majority of the students counted as homeless are doubled up in shared housing, Pappin said. They stay with friends and family but lack a fixed place to spend the night.

“It’s usually families that live together,” she said, a relative of some kind.

Most of these families don’t say they’re homeless, she said, but a total of 104 students fit this definition last year.

The other 19 students are living in cars, camping or living in substandard dwellings, she said. They also may be living in a shelter or hotel.

Some teen students may be living on their own, with one parent gone and another in prison, Pappin said. The students move from home to home, spending a couple of days each place.

Homeless students are across the board in age, Pappin said. The fourth and 12th grade had the most last school year with 16 homeless students each. The district has 12 homeless juniors, 10 homeless sophomores and two homeless freshmen along with three each in the seventh and eighth grades.

The elementary grades average 10 to 15 homeless students per grade, she said.

To meet its obligation to educate children, the district helps the homeless students to ensure that they can make it to school.

“The secretaries will call me if they suspect they have a family that is homeless,” Pappin said, and they will make sure the students are on free and reduced-price meals.

The district also ensures that students stay in the same school throughout the year even if the places they’re staying cross attendance boundaries, she said. Year to year, the school may change depending on the students’ best interests.

“The law is they have to go to school, and we have to give them a ride,” she said. So the district will pick students up at their campsites and must keep track of where those camps are.

More directly, Pappin said, the district has a clothes closet at the Central Office, where students can receive free clothing. When it has funds available, the district can sometimes give financial assistance.

Pappin can connect the students and their families to different government and nonprofit agencies where they can find help, including Oregon Health Plan, the county health office, the Gleaners and Sweet Home Emergency Ministries.

As part of the program, “I actually train secretaries every year about the homeless,” she said. That way they know homeless rights, which are different from those of average students.

For example, homeless students do not need immunization records to start school, Pappin said. That was a big issue after Hurricane Katrina when school records were destroyed and students could produce no immunization records.

The district assists those students in finding the record or making sure they get into a clinic for immunization, she said. The immunizations are available. The district and Linn County Health provide at least two free immunization clinics each year.

The district also uses federal funds to purchase backpacks for students all year long, she said, and the Kiwanis Club donated more than 100 pairs of shoes, many of which go to homeless students, who sometimes come to school with their old shoes taped together.

“This district is really good at providing what a student needs to get to school,” Pappin said. She credited Supt. Larry Horton and Student Services Director Elena Barton for making sure of that.

“This community has just been really good at providing for people down and out or in need,” she said, also crediting Sweet Home and its local benevolence organizations.

For more information about homeless students or to help, call 367-7114.