Wendi Manthei said she knows the signs of student homelessness all too well.
Students may be withdrawn or act out in class or on the playground. Their grades start slipping. Eventually, parents are called in for a meeting after their child has missed too many school days or has been chronically late.
"That (meeting) is usually pretty telling because that means we get the story," said Manthei, principal at Rowena Chess Elementary School in Pasco.
More than 950 students are reported as being homeless in Benton and Franklin counties, according to figures recently released from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That's dozens more than last year and almost triple the number of students reported as not having an established home four years ago.
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School officials and community organizations are working to help students and families affected by homelessness. But not all homeless students are getting those services, either because they don't know they exist or don't want to acknowledge their struggles.
"They're at the edge and trying to figure out how to make it," said Mark Lee, president of the board for Safe Harbor Support Center, which operates My Friends Place, a teen homeless shelter.
Benton and Franklin counties have rates of student homelessness below the state average and had among the smallest growth in that population of students over the past year.
Homeless students face greater risks than students with a home, from an increased likelihood for drug abuse to being less likely to graduate from high school, according to experts.
The continued growth in student homelessness indicates the need for more community awareness and more resources to combat it, said Katara Jordan, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, a poverty advocacy group. CLS recently released an analysis of the state's data on student homelessness.
Student homelessness is determined from criteria in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, federal legislation that determines education standards and funding for some student programs. Jordan said most of those students aren't living on the street but they don't have a permanent home. School is likely the only place they may visit routinely.
"The data underscores the pivotal role that schools must play in the fight to end homelessness as well as our collective responsibility to ensure that schools have the tools and resources they need to educate all students," Jordan said in a news release.
Manthei said there were between 13 and 15 students at her school last year who were homeless, living in hotels or motels or with friends and family, possibly split up from their parents or siblings.
The district offers services and programs to help homeless students. Students in Pasco automatically qualify for free breakfast and lunch if they are homeless and the district will transport them to school, even if they've had to move outside that school's attendance area.
Other schools and districts offer programs and services to help keep students in school. Community resources such as My Friends Place, Vista Youth Center and Safe Harbor Support Center also provide support.
However, officials said many more students likely are homeless but teachers, administrators and others aren't told about it.
"Parents don't usually want to ask for help," Manthei said.
Lee said getting the resources to youth can be an issue. Some students are embarrassed and don't want to accept help. Others may be challenged by a language barrier or simply may not know that it isn't a stable living situation to be couch surfing every night.
"They don't know that's (being) homeless," he said.
Lee said improving the economy is the best way to stabilize families and make sure youth are taken care of. In the meantime, though, it's crucial that families who are struggling with their finances know help is available, he said.
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org