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Northshore School District Sees High Cost of Getting Homeless Kids to Class

Federal law requires school districts to transport homeless students to their original schools, regardless of where they stay at night.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a special report about homeless students in the Northshore School District. Patch partnered with Investigate West for this report.

School districts around the state are grappling with how to help growing populations of homeless students, even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.

While the numbers aren’t as large in Woodinville as elsewhere in the state, the Northshore School District counted 182 homeless students in 2010-11, up from 162 in the 2009-2010 year.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify and report homeless students and to guarantee those students transportation so they can stay at their original schools even if they have been forced to find emergency shelter outside the district. The districts are required to track how many students are living in motels, doubled up with relatives, in cars or in shelters.

Being homeless can affect how children learn, can lead to depression, and can be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities, labels that stick with a child for years. (.

“The main goal of identifying kids is so they can stay in their school of origin, so they have consistency with their peers, teachers and educational progress,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

That means providing cabs, bus passes, or other means of transportation for kids, even if it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school. It’s up to individual school districts to squeeze that transportation money from their own budgets.

“There is no pot of money for homeless students,” said Dyer. “It’s a big burden for districts.”

To try to contain costs, Northshore partners with other school districts to transport students. Even so, the district spent $105,000 last year transporting homeless students, according to Connie Knoll, director of transportation for Northshore.

“What I would like people to understand most is this is an unfunded federal mandate,” Knoll said.

Homelessness grows

A report released in December shows 21,826 homeless students statewide in the 2009-2010 school year, a 30 percent increase in three years. That reporting period compares the numbers of homeless students reported in the 2006-2007 school year, before the recession began in December of 2007, to the most current full year, 2009-2010.

Of the 10 districts with the highest numbers of homeless students in the state, eight reported increases from 2006-07 to 2009-10. Bellingham, for example, was up 80 percent, Tacoma up 17 percent, Seattle up 27 percent and Highline up 21 percent. In Northshore a district with 18,370, the homeless student population is less than 1 percent of the total district population.

The increase reflects a national trend, driven largely by the fallout of the grim economy. Families are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population. They now account for 40 percent of the homeless population, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. And most of those families have children, many of them school-age.

According to a July report by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the number of students who are homeless across the country has increased 41 percent in two years to about 1 million students. 

Diane Nilan June 09, 2011 at 01:26 AM
Not all homeless kids need to be transported, but a district transportation manager sounding the "unfunded mandate" mantra is a cheap shot that will make them any as popular as lepers. What do we have here? A series of Patch articles in different geographic areas chiming in to say serving homeless students is too expensive. Some districts sound more sympathetic. If it were up to some districts, they'd ship homeless kids to some far off island, at the district's cheerful expense. It's a law. Homeless kids get a chance at stable education when everything else in their lives is up for grabs. I've talked to countless kids of all ages across the country in the past 6 years as I've been chronicling non-urban homelessness as it affects families and youth. The kids are inspiring as they talk about the value of education. Listen for yourself on the 4-minute trailer for "My Own Four Walls." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbSgzEQJXs8) With public education being shredded by special interest groups, with housing and job losses upending millions, with political leaders focusing on Weiner-gate...then this quote from an apparently grumpy transportation director complaining about the cost of getting kids to school. What's the cost of them not going to school? Or doesn't that matter? Don't make homeless kids scapegoats for all the woes of the world. They didn't want to be homeless. I'd suggest you save the district money by finding some decent housing closer to their schools.
Annie Archer (Editor) June 09, 2011 at 02:13 AM
Diane, thank you for your comments. Indeed, the articles were a collaboration between Patch and Investigate West. The article on Woodinville Patch is not biased on the issue of homeless students, nor does it state anywhere that transporting homeless students is too expensive. We clearly state is is the law and the school district is following the law. The article states the facts as reported by authorities.
Diane Nilan June 10, 2011 at 02:21 AM
It is hard for the average person to equate the money talked about to transport homeless students with the value of maintaining an stable educational setting. The article sounded like all the kids needed transportation. You also presented the worst case scenario: "it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school. It’s up to individual school districts to squeeze that transportation money from their own budgets." And then the "unfunded mandate" torch. For years we've been pushing Congress for more funding to help schools with homeless students. But really, would it not be a win-win if schools would work with agencies to quickly help find housing for families closer to schools? Ecologically better. Cheaper than gas. And obviously the families could benefit by a more normal situation. Thanks for your response.

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