The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Schools work with homeless students

 


According to Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, there were over 39,000 homeless students enrolled in Washington state schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Approximately 50 of these youths were in attendance at some point during the year at Wahkiakum School District.

Sometimes, school is the only stable environment in a student’s life.

Homelessness could be defined as living in a homeless shelter; in a hotel/motel; having no shelter and living in a park, or a campground, etc.; or doubled up. Doubled up is simply defined as “sleeping in someone else’s house.”

For instance, if an adult with a family needed to move back in with his parents, that would be considered doubling up. There are many variations.

“The majority of our kids are doubled up by choice or by necessity,” Prinicipal Theresa Libby said.

In Wahkiakum County, homelessness doesn’t usually live up to the image that comes to mind when the matter is mentioned. For the most part, it isn’t living in a tent or in some other kind of meager structure.

“We’ve had that,” Libby said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. We’ve heard about some situations that were pretty deplorable as well, where they’ve had no running water or indoor plumbing.”

Some students are waiting for placement into foster care, or are living in the shelter. There are a few that may be couch surfing because they have been kicked out of their home, or their parents left and they wanted to stay. Every story is a little different.

Thanks to backing from the federal level down to local programs and donations from concerned citizens and staff, students at Wahkiakum School District are getting support according to Principals Libby and Stephanie Leitz.

And because they are the first to see when a child is hungry, or dirty, or in need, the school staff is usually the first to respond. Frequently, and quietly, a problem is resolved out of their own pocket.

But they aren’t the only ones.

“I think the nice thing about our community is that people do know and we try to do everything we can like with the GAP program, and the food banks,” Libby said. “We try to help and we have some pretty good donors that will say that the money is just to be used for families in need. St. Catherine’s has been great every year giving the school a donation.”

“We work really hard to make sure kids don’t go without,” Leitz added. “The McKinney-Vento Act is the one that really requires us to look at homeless students to make sure they have equal opportunities with everyone else.”

“Homeless students are automatically enrolled in Title 1 which provides extra help in reading and math,” Libby said. “It can pay for transportation needs and tutoring. It opens a lot of doors for funding at a federal level.”

There are funds set up to cover any number of expenses K-8, and the high school. The Haas Foundation provides grants for schools, and the money can be used for anything a student needs, including paying for any kind of testing, whether through the AP program or if the student would like to take the SAT.

These myriad funds have paid for kids to participate in sports, for athletic shoes, for meals after games. Sometimes a kid just wants to go to a dance.

“We also have a nurse’s fund that is used to meet medical needs,” Libby said. “Sometimes for a parent it comes down to buying a student’s medication or feeding them. If a student doesn’t get their medication, sometimes we notice problems at school.”

Though the fund covers visits to the doctor, it does not stipulate who the student must see.

Dream Team Dental comes out at least twice a year, Libby said, and does screenings. And they will help parents find places that provide dental work at low rates.

There are clothing closets in both schools. They even stock items for special events like the prom.

One organization in Longview drops off new socks and underwear on a regular basis. Sometimes students aren’t in a position to wash them regularly, and the items just disappear.

There is a washer and dryer at the high school, and it is used when needed. Teachers have also been known to take laundry home. Showers are available to students at the school as well.

“We try to elevate their status,” Leitz said, “to make them feel good. Mule gear is an equalizer. One-to-one Chromebooks at the high school are an equalizer. We keep the library open until 4:30, where they can be as long as they want. We try to hook them up with the community center, the library, or the Johnson House.”

A local church donates snacks regularly. Sometimes teachers provide snacks or ask parents for extra so they can feed all the kids.

The GAP program, which was founded by teacher Lisa Sauer, sends food items home with kids each weekend and on school breaks.

The number of free and reduced priced breakfasts and lunches have gone up over the years.

“When I started here 15 years ago we were at about 38 percent free and reduced,” Libby said. “And my building is over 60 percent, so there has been a big change in economics down here since I’ve been here.”

According to Libby, some believe that that number is still under reported.

Sometimes support comes in the form of transportation. Perhaps a student wants to try out a new sport, but the parent is unable to get them to and from practice, so a teacher will offer to drop them off on their way home. Sometimes the family moves, and the child wants to stay in the school district. On occasion, the district has been able to make that happen by working with the family, the other school district, and a counselor.

Last year, Wahkiakum Health and Human Services came to the school with a new idea. They would hire a new mental health professional that would work half time at the school district as a counselor.

The idea was met with enthusiasm, and it has turned out to be another support system for all, including the homeless students and the staff, who want to provide the best environment they can to try and ensure that the kids are able to succeed in school, despite what is happening at home.

“That partnership is huge,” Leitz said.

The new counselor can see the whole picture, and may even be working with the parents to find housing or employment, while providing teachers and staff a clearer understanding of a particular student’s needs.

“They were finding that they get behind with all that hopping around if they lost housing,” Libby said of recent studies on students and homelessness. “It’s across the board. Some are thriving, but others might be struggling because of all their uncertainties.”

“This is kind of their safe place,” Libby added. “Something they can count on. Once they learn the system they can come and be a kid.”

Karla Gates, the Intervention/Prevention Specialist at the school, has also been an invaluable resource. She makes a point of greeting every new kid, and immediately becomes a point of contact for those kids, if she is needed.

“Sometimes they don’t have the best experience with principals,” Libby said.

Research is changing discipline in schools. Staff is learning to move to a place of compassion and understanding. They are also learning about how poverty and generational poverty can affect success.

“That kid acted out, they are out of here,” Libby said, explaining how discipline used to be. “Now I wonder if it is going to do me any good to send this kid home? That’s probably what they want, or it’s not going to do any good, or they had this blowout because they are really worried about their mom or their brother or whoever. What can we do?”

In the end it all comes down to this:

“How do we help them be their best while they’re here?” Leitz said. “We want to support them and meet them where they are and look for growth from there.”

 

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