Local homeless students rate still among state’s highest

Sean C. Morgan

The percentage of students identified as homeless within the boundaries of School District 55 remained about the same from last year, but is still among the highest in the state, according to an Oregon Department of Education report on homelessness released on Nov. 15.

The report shows that 10.3 percent of Sweet Home students were homeless in 2011-12, the same as 2010-11. In 2011-12, District 55 reported an enrollment of 2,291 students, with 236 classified as homeless. In 2010-11, it reported an enrollment of 2,347 with 242 classified as homeless.

District 55 had the highest rate among those with 1,000 or higher enrollment. A handful of districts with nearly 1,000 students had higher rates, and several smaller districts, with enrollments of a couple hundred or less, had even higher percentages homelessness, such as 25 percent in Butte Falls.

The statewide homeless rate was 3.7 percent in 2010-11 and 3.64 in 2011-12. Forty of 197 districts reported zero homeless students in 2011-12.

The Sweet Home numbers increased in 2010-11 from about 202 in 2009-10.

So far this year, 2012-13, the district has identified about 162 homeless students.

“It’s gone up every year,” said Joan Pappin, district nurse. The percentage may have plateaued this year, but “it doesn’t feel that way to me, I guess because it’s been so high.”

The most surprising part of the report is that more of them seem to be at the kindergarten and first-grade level, Pappin said. Usually, the numbers are higher among high school students.

In high school, students deal with a number of circumstances. Among them, both parents may be in prison. In other cases, parents are divorced and the single mother is incapable of making it, so the student lives with friends. Still others are from homes that simply fall apart due to parent behavior, student behavior, sibling problems, teen pregnancy and other reasons that may drive a student to live with a friend.

“Most of our (homeless) families are in shared housing,” Pappin said, and that may explain why there is more of it showing up with younger children.

While most are sharing housing with someone, including all of the younger ones, some have lost their homes, moved out or been evicted, Pappin said, perhaps because of job loss.

Sometimes, parents lose their jobs in another city and return to Sweet Home to live with their parents, Pappin said. It may be a temporary situation, but anything transient and unstable is counted.

Some of them may be doing OK living with the grandparents, while others might be living in a shack, she said.

The district collects information based on a form it requires from parents at the beginning of the school year, Pappin said.

“My goal is to keep these kids in school so they can make their lives better, so they can get a job and be stable,” she said. District 55 goes the extra mile tutoring the homeless students through Title I at the elementary level. The non-Title schools, the junior high and high school, receive extra help from the district.

Coming up is an after-school homework club at the junior high, she said. An assistant will always be available to help, and teachers are often around.

At the high school, Peggy Rolph, the secretary who works with homeless liaison Heidi Lewis, is great at helping connect the students to resources, Pappin said.

In the district, a clothes closet is available at each school and the Central Office, and students can access the Food Pak program for food over the weekends.

Pappin, Lewis and Rolph work together to guide students to the Oregon Health Plan and basic provisions, like soap, shampoo, clothes and food.

Rolph also provides her own study hall, Pappin said. “She goes the extra mile helping them.”

If they aren’t surviving, are lacking in electricity, heat or even a place to sleep at night, education becomes secondary and attendance suffers, she said, and that’s why they help out. They want to make sure they receive the education they need to improve their lives.

Based on their efforts, some 42 to 50 percent of the secondary students are able to maintain or even improve their GPA despite their homeless circumstances, Pappin said. Some of them are considered talented and gifted.

District 55 receives a grant of $4,200 per year, $16.87 per homeless student last year, through the Linn-Benton-Lincoln Education Service District to specifically help homeless students, Pappin said. It pays some staff time, and it can be used for transportation to extra help.

The district gives away clothing during registration and a clothing drive at the end of the year to help fill the clothes closets, Pappin said. The Elks have given supplies to the schools, including clothing. The Kiwanis constantly provide shoes. The Chamber of Commerce donated school supplies last year. The Food Pak program is well-supported by the community.

Individuals bring in all kinds of donations to help out, Pappin said. The community is “pretty generous.”

Pappin has sent out e-mails when students have lost their houses, and the staff members have donated enough to provide complete homes. One family was a victim of Hurricane Katrina in 2004. When the family moved to Sweet Home, it had nothing, but through those donations, they were able to furnish their home completely.

“This community is generous,” Pappin said.

“For the second year in a row, the number of Oregon students dealing with homelessness has topped 20,000,” said state Deputy Supt. Rob Saxton. “These numbers are a sobering reminder of the very real impact our economic situation is having on our students and families.

“Homelessness affects all of us. The recent recession hit many of our families hard, and far too many of our students don’t have the security of a permanent home or a reliable next meal. Until our students’ basic needs are met, they will not be able to fulfill their potential at school.

“AI want to encourage everyone to do something extra this year to help our neighbors and fellow Oregonians. Our liaisons are doing an incredible job of supporting our homeless youth, but they cannot do it alone. If we are going to build the state we want for our kids, we must work together to end the cycle of poverty and give all of our students a shot at a bright and hopeful future.”