WESTERN TREASURE VALLEY — For many youth, depending on how their schools have responded to COVID-19, the new school year means a chance to get out of the house. But for some students, doing homework when they don’t have a home to do it in is a very real challenge. According to an article published by the National Education Association, the homeless student population in the U.S. stands at 1.5 million as of February. The Association reports this is a 15% increase since the 2015-16 school year.
To learn how this hits home in the Western Treasure Valley, the newspaper reached out to local school districts to discover more about our local homeless student population and how schools are helping those students cope as they reopen after COVID-19 shutdowns in March.
According to a Sept. 11 email from Sandy Valadez, director of Federal Programs & Special Education for the Fruitland School District, there are 57 homeless students attending district campuses.
To help these students, Valadez says the district helps with “school supplies including uniforms; hygiene items if needed; referrals to food banks and to places for clothing, if needed; free meals (though our whole student population are provided free meals during this COVID time).”
Valadez said Fruitland schools are working with United Way of Treasure Valley, Goodwill Industries and other school districts to provide continued support to its homeless student population.
According to Whitney Cowgill, federal programs director for the New Plymouth School District, there are 46 students districtwide considered homeless.
“All students are given free breakfast and lunch. School supplies are available for these students as well,” wrote Cowgill in an email on Sept. 11. “Since the elementary school is considered a school-wide Title 1 building, all students are offered the same support services. However, the middle school is a targeted Title 1 building. Students experiencing homelessness are given additional classroom support by a paraprofessional, if needed.”
Cowgill said the district is in the process of compiling available local and state resources to support these students.
“This list will include agencies that provide clothing, food and low income housing,” she said. “This list will then be given to all families that are experiencing homelessness.”
Within the Payette School District, the number of homeless students identified under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act starts out small in primary grades but steadily goes up from there, with nearly three times more students being homeless in the high school than in the primary school. Numbers follow.
•Payette Primary: 10 students
• Westside Elementary: 17 students
• McCain Middle: 29 students
• Payette High: 38 students
• Total: 94 students
“Payette School District is a leader in our community when it comes to helping our students that have found themselves in often times a new, and scary place,” wrote Tammie Anderson, federal programs director for Payette in an email on Wednesday. “Our teachers on the front lines are invaluable in helping to identify more possible students. Once students have been identified we can step in with certain resources.”
Anderson pointed out resources the district has available already, including their clothing closet with thousands of items available. The District also offers vouchers for the Idaho Youth Ranch thrift store.
“We realize some of the difficulties families may have. We can work them individually to assess their needs and can help picking clothes. Our [McKinney-Vento] staffing, although limited, are knowledgeable in dress code issues. We can even deliver families clothing as needed.”
Anderson notes that in addition to clothing, hygiene kits are among the most requested items, especially when families are displaced suddenly. She also pointed out transportation resources for families.
“When a family is displaced, their vehicle, if they have one, becomes a lifeline. We can provide gas cards and bus companies to help with transportation fees.”
Anderson said the District liaison is reaching out to agencies including local law enforcement, Payette Family Counseling, the Western Idaho Community Action Partnership, local churches and the Idaho Foodbank for extra help.
“And we participate in the backpack food programs.”
The issue of homeless students is not as widespread in the Weiser School District, with only a headcount of eight students. Nonetheless, Federal Programs and Special Education Director William Morriss has his fingers firmly on their pulse.
“The District provides professional development training to district staff on the identification of homeless students, sensitivity and appropriate conduct, and legal requirements for McKinney-Vento students,” wrote Morriss in an email on Tuesday. “The District ensures the educational rights and protections for children and youth experiencing homelessness.”
Services provided in Weiser include the following:
• A homeless liaison who tracks the needs of the district’s homeless students and does family visits when necessary;
• Title I, Part A services, helping students remain on track to meet statewide student performance standards;
• Providing backpacks, school supplies and tutoring;
• Providing gear, supplies and instruments to encourage participation in extracurricular activities; and
• Physical supports like waiving student fees, busing, gas cards for family, food, and clothing.
“Help may also include medical and dental services, eyeglasses and hearing aids, and counseling services,” added Morriss.
Getting them through it
Anderson added that Payette schools remains committed to supporting students regardless of their circumstances.
“Payette School District is providing in person learning opportunities which allows for these students to have a sense of normalcy given their unique circumstances and the pandemic,” she says. “This provides these students with hope that life will return to normal and that educators are there to help them strive for a bigger and brighter future.”
Morriss adds that ensuring the rights of homeless students is a key component of getting them through their situation.
“The District ensures the educational rights and protections for children and youth experiencing homelessness and includes:
• The right to immediate enrollment in school even without giving a permanent address;
• The right to attend school in the school of origin (if requested and is feasible), or in the school in the attendance area where the family or youth is currently residing;
• The right to receive transportation to the school of origin;
• The right to services comparable to those received by housed schoolmates;
• The right to attend school along with children not experiencing homelessness; and
• The posting of homeless student rights in all schools and other places around the community.”