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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Education despite adversity

Kamitra Maxwell made sure her three children were enrolled in school while the family was living on Spokane streets and in a shelter.

“School is important for my children,” she said through tears. “They need to be educated so they don’t have to go through things like this.”

Schools across the nation have seen a surge in homeless students, of whom there were more than a million last spring, according to the most current national data. And the numbers continue to climb.

Inland Northwest schools are following that trend, with Spokane, Coeur d’Alene and the three Spokane Valley districts well on their way to surpassing the number of homeless students enrolled last year by at least 20 percent, officials said.

“We’ve seen this (homeless) wave coming,” said James Curb, homeless liaison coordinator for the Coeur d’Alene School District. A federal mandate – the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act – requires that every district designate a liaison to identify and work with homeless students. The law also mandates transportation for students whose situations force them to move away from their school or out of the district. The measure, however, puts a strain on cash-strapped districts, particularly the transportation component.

The federal definition of “homeless” is broad: “An individual living in a place they have no legal right to occupy, in an emergency shelter, or in a temporary housing program which may include a friend’s home, or transitional and supportive housing program if habitation time limits exist.”

Doubling up, or living with other people such as family or friends, is the most common arrangement.

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced two bills that could provide additional resources to help homeless and foster children succeed in school. If passed, the measure addressing homeless students – Educational Success for Children and Youths without Homes – would include additional liaisons, more funding for transportation and increased outreach.

“Some may wonder why the school district gets involved with something that’s not academic driven – but what’s homework without a home?” Curb said. “Until a child’s basic needs are met they can’t focus on education.”

Said Leslie Camden Goold, Central Valley School District’s homeless liaison: “Our job is to make sure the kids are safe, they’re fed, they’re happy and they’re learning – not worrying about dinner or where their brother is going to sleep. In the meantime, we work to get the families stable.”

‘Too young for that’

Maxwell moved to Spokane earlier this year only to learn that the job she thought was waiting for her had been given to someone else. She spent all her savings on a motel, but after several days was forced to the streets with her elementary school-age kids. She tried desperately to find emergency shelter.

“I was going to the shelters every day, but the shelters were all full,” Maxwell said. “I even stopped a police officer on the street to ask for help, and he said to stay in the bus station because the shelters were full.”

Her hard luck turned when she met Edie Sims, who works with homeless students in Spokane Public Schools. Sims was able to find the family a temporary shelter. Maxwell found a job and an apartment a short time later.

Maxwell has her family back on their feet, but she knows homelessness can be just a step away.

“This is the first time we’ve been strapped,” she said. “They were stressed, and they are too young for that.”

Her experience represents what thousands of Americans are going through, many for the first time due to cuts in social services and increases in unemployment and home foreclosures, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said she’s been traveling around the country lately, and “everywhere I go, people are really scrambling to get help for families.”

Only 11 states have more homeless children than Washington, according to The National Center on Family Homelessness. Idaho has significantly fewer homeless children.

Spokane Public Schools assisted 1,006 homeless students in the 2007-’08 school year – more than the Seattle School District and about 85 fewer than the Tacoma School District, according to the most recent data from Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Two and half months into the school year, Spokane Public Schools has already enrolled 453 homeless students.

The East Valley, Central Valley and West Valley districts have enrolled 339 together during the same time period. “It’s almost half of what we had in all of last year – 694,” Goold said. “It’s bad out there.”

Though Curb, Coeur d’Alene’s homeless liaison, didn’t have figures, he said he’s also seen a big increase.

Fear of being kicked out

Sims’ encounter with Maxwell is just one example of the many ways homeless students are identified.

“The kids refer each other,” Sims said. “They are also discovered when they go to their counselors because they are hungry.”

School staff is also trained at recognizing homeless students, Goold said.

Homeless liaisons said falling asleep in class, dirty clothes, stuffing pockets with food or erratic emotions can indicate bigger issues.

“Every one of them is experiencing a hurricane in their life,” Sims said. “Sometimes homelessness isn’t the worst trauma they’ve endured.”

Sims said homeless students frequently tell her they want a place of their own, where they don’t feel like they’re in someone’s way.

“They live in fear, always afraid they are going to get kicked out,” she said. “That messes you up developmentally.”

Stability is critical to learning, officials said. That’s why the liaisons not only work with the students, but also connect families with social services.

School districts will transport students from as far as an hour away, sometimes a little more, or give them a bus pass. Districts might even pay a relative who lives nearby to drive students to school.

Washington and Idaho do not track transportation costs for homeless students, but some individual districts do. Spokane Public Schools spent $371,572 on such transportation during the 2008-’09 school year, including school buses, mileage paid to individuals, and city bus passes.

The high school factor

School officials say the increase in homelessness among high school students has been surprising.

The economy may be behind part of it. “There’s more stress, so more arguments, so teens are leaving,” Sims said. “In borderline families, the older kids get pushed out. The parents say, ‘You know what? I only have enough money to pay for the younger kids, so you need to leave.’ ”

Nationwide, “students are literally being dropped off at shelters … staying behind in foreclosed homes,” said Duffield, of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Or they camp out, said Curb, of the Coeur d’Alene School District, which had the third-largest homeless student population in Idaho last year.

Sims said Spokane Public Schools has seen a 20 percent increase in homeless high school students.

Rogers High School senior Brian Bell came onto Sims’ radar earlier this year, a few months after his mother died. His father left seven years ago.

Bell, 17, lives with his late mother’s friend, a woman he calls his godmom. “It took them a long time to acknowledge I was homeless because it’s not my godmom’s obligation to take care of me,” Bell said. He says connecting with the Homeless Education and Resource Team has made a big difference.

“They’ve provided everything I can think of,” Bell said – a calculator for school, fees for the Running Start program he attends at Spokane Community College, and even the cost of his graduation cap and gown.

“The last big thing was clothes,” Bell said. “It’s hard to find my size.” The teen is 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds.

“It’s hard for me to admit I need emotional help. It’s not hard for me to ask for financial help because we’ve been poor my whole life,” said Bell, who hopes to attend college and become a lawyer. “I know that this is not it for me,” he said. “I’m not homeless in the traditional sense.”

Sims said homeless high school students sometimes carry heavy emotional burdens.

“Often the high school kids have gotten out of situations where they didn’t feel safe, but they feel guilty because they left younger siblings behind,” she said. “Often they are angry at the parent, but they still love them. That’s a huge issue for a 14- or 15-year-old to be dealing with.

“We let them know that they don’t have to do it all themselves, that there’s a community to support them.”