12/19/10 — Schools help out homeless students

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Schools help out homeless students

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on December 19, 2010 1:50 AM

More than 250 children in Wayne County have nowhere to call home after the final school bell rings every day, and aren't always promised a hot meal outside of their school cafeteria.

Latosha Cox frequently sees the effects of poverty among local families. As a social worker with Wayne County Schools, she is often one of the first to identify children in need.

The social workers like Mrs. Cox who partner with the county's homeless education services seek to help those students pursue an education despite the uncertainty of their lives.

That's a job that has become busier than ever in recent years, she said.

"We have a lot more homeless cases than we have in the past. At the last meeting, we were told a little more than 200 so far, from 2009 to 2010," Mrs. Cox said.

There are currently 265 students attending Wayne County Schools who are classified as homeless, the office reported.

Getting an education is challenging enough without students having to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or if their family will have a safe place to sleep at night, but that is the reality for many students, Mrs. Cox said.

"It's very difficult for them. They're trying to maintain their homework, and their home situation may not be the ideal situation. Behavior in school is affected by home life," she said.

More families with school-age children are struggling with homelessness than before, likely due to the economy. Even some previously prosperous families have simply been unable to find work for a long period of time, officials said.

"A lot of them have lost their jobs. It's a difficult situation," Mrs. Cox said.

But to keep the students in school despite their circumstances - giving them a chance to make a better life for their future - is a challenge that takes cooperation between teachers, administrators, social workers and many others in Dr. Willette Stanley's office.

Mrs. Stanley is Wayne County's homeless education services liaison, where she works to help school staff provide the best education possible for students, even when they are experiencing homelessness.

"We identified 281 students as homeless last year in Wayne County and that, for us, provided an opportunity to address their educational needs," she said.

The schools identify homeless students based on certain criteria. Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, a student may be considered homeless if he or she lives in a shelter, a motel, a vehicle or campground, on the streets, in abandoned housing or in an abandoned building. They may also be considered homeless, under the federal guidelines, if they are living doubled up with friends or relatives and may be asked to leave at any time.

The latter situation is an increasingly common one, and in previous years, those students may not have been classified as homeless, though they are under the current regulations.

The majority of students in Wayne County who are classified as homeless are typically living with friends or family, and a few are living in a shelter, campground or abandoned housing, school officials reported.

Social workers like Mrs. Cox are often the first ones, along with classroom teachers, to learn that a student's family is struggling.

"What we ask our social workers to do, we have a screening process in place. They can be self-referral, community agent or school personnel can refer to the homeless program," Mrs. Stanley said.

The school system tries to quickly identify and enroll homeless students into the program. The office also provides information to parents about resources available in the community to assist them in their time of need, while working to help the children continue in school.

"We seek to address in the educational arena, what are the educational needs, what are the needs for that student to be in school?" Mrs. Stanley said.

Part of what the program does is provide transportation and educational supplies for homeless students. If the child is staying in a shelter, Mrs. Stanley can arrange to have a bus pick the up at the shelter. If the student does not have a backpack to carry their books or pencils and paper to do their school work, the program makes sure they get those materials.

"Social workers work very closely with the family, asking how we may be of assistance in terms of removing barriers that the student may have," Mrs. Stanley said.

The office will also help the families work with aid agencies to find a place to stay and get enough to eat. But the needs of every family are different, and the educational needs of every child are different.

To encourage students to succeed in their school work, the program also has a tutor who goes to the shelter and works to help students, providing relevant coursework for the children so their academic goals can still be achieved.

And that's just one example of community connections and support working to help the homeless children in the county, Mrs. Stanley said.

The number of homeless children in the school system has increased in recent years, which could be related to better identification of those students, officials said.

"We've done a lot of training, a lot of outreach and a lot of, how do they identify homeless students," Mrs. Stanley said.

In the past it may have been clear in many cases that a student needed assistance, but educators weren't always aware of the requirements for children considered eligible for the program.

Now, all Wayne County school personnel are trained to recognize the signs of a child in need, and what assistance is available through the homeless education program. That way, more children without a home of their own are recognized - and can be helped, Mrs. Stanley said.