By Rebecca LaFlure and Matt Goodman
Killeen Daily Herald
The Killeen Independent School District is taking steps to tackle student homelessness after a district-wide study found that 762 students lacked permanent shelter in the 2008-09 school year.
This number, which accounts for about 2 percent of the district's total enrollment, spurred KISD officials to apply for a grant that would increase its services to homeless students.
"We really wanted to focus on the academic needs of the children," said Denise Pennington, KISD's homeless student liaison. "The sheer unstable lifestyle they lead affects performance in the classroom and being able to complete their homework."
According to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless youth "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." This includes children who share housing with other people due to economic hardship; those who live in motels, hotels, trailer parks, camping grounds or transitional shelters; or those who await foster care placement.
The majority of KISD's homeless students live with friends, and the second-largest segment resides in homeless shelters, district officials say. Of the 204 homeless students this school year, 25 live in shelters.
The survey was based on a questionnaire parents filled out when they enrolled their children. There are more than 39,000 students in KISD.
A widespread issue
During the first two weeks of the current school year, officials identified 204 homeless students, setting a pace to easily exceed the 762 enrolled last year.
But it's not a problem that's isolated to Killeen. National financial issues are compounding, and when parents feel the brunt of the shaky economy and lose their homes, more students are facing a life without permanent residences while enrolled in school.
In August, the nation's home foreclosure rate was up 32 percent from the same month last year. And according to a report issued Friday, 9.7 percent of Americans are unemployed.
"Everything I've heard from school districts is that numbers are skyrocketing all over," said Barbara James, project director for the Texas Homeless Education Office.
The Texas Homeless Education Office is still compiling statistics from 2008-09 that will show how many homeless students are in each school district. However, statistics from 2007-08 compared with individual findings at area school districts show that the number of homeless students statewide will increase.
KISD had about a 31 percent increase from the 2007-08 school year to the following year. Copperas Cove Independent School District had 202 homeless students last year and 109 in the 2007-08 school year, about a 85 percent increase.
In 2008-09, Waco Independent School District had one of the highest rates of homeless students in the state during the 2007-08 school year – 12 percent of students were homeless. Austin Independent School District had 50 less than Waco in the same school year.
"There are grants that my office offers and there are grants through Texas education and the federal government," James said. "The Texas Homeless Network is helping the communities that aren't in the major urban areas so every county has money coming into it."
Over the next three years, KISD will receive $53,000 annually from a Texas Homeless Education Program grant, and $94,000 over the next two years in federal stimulus money.
Thanks to the extra funds, KISD officials hired a full-time teacher to provide tutoring and other educational needs to students with no place to call home.
"My main goal is to make sure their basic needs are met so they can stay in school and graduate," said Tonia Manning, KISD's new homeless education teacher and a former social worker. "For the elementary-aged children, I want to ensure there's not a red flag on their back that says, 'I'm homeless.' We want them to blend in and just be kids."
To raise awareness of the issue, Manning and Pennington visited KISD campuses to educate district teachers about ways to identify homeless students and provide adequate resources.
Manning said she makes sure homeless students are provided with free meals, school supplies and clothing, all paid for using the grant money. She will also provide tutoring at local homeless shelters and parenting skills classes. In the future, she wants to put computers with Internet access in the local shelters.
James agreed with KISD's methodology. She believes schools need to follow student homelessness from the start, identify the problem and ensure that the students are successful in the classroom as the year progresses.
"We want districts to understand that if students are homeless or appear to be homeless to enroll the student first and then ask questions," James said.
She advised districts to sponsor tutors and after-school programs, as well as opening the facilities early for students who need to shower or eat.
"Making sure students have socks and underwear, and making sure they have adequate nutrition is extremely important," James said.
Teachers should also be conscious of disadvantaged students. For instance, teachers should not assume every child in a desk has access to a computer at home and should structure lesson plans around that.
James also said to not forget the community influence: civic groups are often willing to volunteer time and money to help children. And residents often donate school supplies and canned goods, which could be funneled to the homeless students.
"It's appealing because 100 percent of funds for kids should be going to kids and not going to administrative causes, and that's what happens," James said. "For the students who move, school is often the only stable place that they have and we want to make sure we give them every right to stay in that."