The increase in the Yakima Valley’s homeless student population initially could be dismissed as a statistical anomaly, the outcome of greater efforts to identify the homeless, along with an increasingly tighter housing market and recent job losses by parents and guardians.
Whatever the definition of student homelessness — and the federal government not only defines it but requires school districts to deal with it — it’s fair to say that many of these students live in conditions that do not foster learning. They need extra help from the school districts, and likewise the districts need extra help from the community.
Figures from the Yakima Valley are eye-catching: over a nine-year period, the number of homeless students in the Yakima School District almost tripled to 847 out of about 16,000 students, or more than 5 percent of the student population. In Toppenish over the same period, the number of homeless students rose from 33 to 243 of about 4,400 total students, also more than 5 percent.
Federal legislation from the 1980s defines homelessness as lacking a home and living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, campgrounds or in a transitional shelter. Children are considered homeless if they sleep in a place that is not designed as a sleeping space, or live in cars, parks, abandoned buildings or were abandoned at hospitals. Teachers and counselors are increasingly sensitive to signs that a student may not have the best living situation; they are asking the right questions and letting appropriate officials know.
School districts are required to immediately enroll the students, even if they lack required documents such as immunization records or proof of residency. Districts also must ensure students have transportation to school, whether by school buses, public transit or other means. Schools may need to provide tutoring, waive activity fees and transport students who don’t live on regular bus routes. They also must help families get access to social services.
To do all that, the districts turn to individuals, businesses and community service groups. Some of the needed goods — clothing, bedding, toiletries, laundry soap and athletic gear — don’t readily come to mind as back-to-school items. But schools make a strong case about helping the community understand the need and then respond with help, and the Yakima Valley is not alone. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reports the statewide number of homeless students has more than doubled in the past nine years to almost 40,000.
In a way, this is another community problem, not of the schools’ making, that falls on schools to resolve. It’s in a community’s interest to provide students with an education and skills needed to help them succeed in the world of work or postsecondary education. The efforts of the community, and awareness about what steps are effective, can help the schools succeed in their mission of educating all students who walk through their doors.