Mary Kamandala worried about her children. Originally from Sudan, the mother of six moved into shared housing in Tacoma after her husband died. She spoke little English and had trouble finding work.
“I’m from zero,” she said, “so it was a really bad situation when I came here. It was just me and them, and no one could help me.”
Three of her children were attending McCarver Elementary School in the Hilltop neighborhood when she found the program that could - and did - help her to get a home, a job and improve her children’s performance in school.
In 2011, the Tacoma Housing Authority partnered with the school, which serves the poorest population in the district, to provide housing and support to 50 families with children enrolled in the school who were experiencing homelessness.
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They receive housing vouchers for five years - if they follow certain rules, such as ensuring that students are on time to school - and the amount decreases by 20 percent each year.
Most of all, they receive support.
Case workers, who have offices at the school, helped Kamandala enroll in classes to get her home-care certificate. They later helped her get a job at the Korean Women’s Association.
Michael Power supervises the program, which has motivated state lawmakers to push measures that would facilitate the creation of others like it.
Students have improved test scores and better attendance, but Power said the program’s most important development is that they’re moving less.
In 2006, the school had a turnover rate of 179 percent - meaning more than the total population of students were moving in and out of the school each year. It’s down to 75 percent for the school and 13 percent for students in the program.
It’s a victory for this school, but the problem is not solved for the state.
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports more than 30,000 homeless students were identified in public schools from September 2012 to June 2013 - that’s about 12 percent more than the previous school year.
Right now, the state provides support to homeless students and their families through the federal McKinney-Vento Act.
Districts must enroll homeless children - who often lack proof of residence, immunization records and other necessary documents - and transport them to and from school. If they are enrolled in a school, the district must allow them to stay there. The state receives federal funding to offset these costs - about $950,000 from the U.S. Department of Education.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is working to supplement McKinney-Vento to increase aid for Washington’s rising number of homeless students, as well as for other states.
The federal Educational Success for Children and Youth Without Homes Act would increase funding for McKinney-Vento and allow districts to use Title I funds - reserved for schools with high numbers of children from low-income families - for transportation.
The bill - one of several measures Murray is sponsoring to benefit homeless youth - also extends some provisions to public preschools and provides training for case workers and educational opportunities for students.
Dinah Ladd is the Seattle School District’s McKinney-Vento liaison, a caseworker who connects homeless students with services.
Many of these students move around three or four times a year, Ladd says.
McKinney-Vento “gives them stability in their education,” said Ladd, whose office helps low-income students pay for expenses such as field trips and caps and gowns for graduation.
Fear keeps some quiet
But even when homeless students qualify for benefits, many don’t come forward.
Katara Jordan is an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, a firm that provides legal assistance to low-income families. She said some students are worried that if they identify themselves as homeless, they could be taken away from their parents.
It’s a risk, especially for families who are unsheltered or live in cars. But Ladd says the school district can help.
“We’ll get you out of that situation,” she said.
Most of these families qualify for emergency housing, food and other services.
Lawmakers are working on ways to get these services to students who have not been identified. Columbia Legal Services estimates 10,000 homeless students in Washington schools haven’t come forward.
The state Homeless Children Education Act, or Senate Bill 6074 and House Bill 2373, is aimed at better identifying homeless students to provide support. The measure would require OSPI to report data on homeless students to the state, including numbers of identified homeless students enrolled in public schools, test scores, truancy and dropout rates. It also would require OSPI to create a training video and instructions to help teachers and school employees identify homeless students.
The Senate version is headed to the governor’s desk.
Housing aid limited
Most children from families that consider themselves homeless qualify for McKinney-Vento and education services, but far fewer qualify for housing assistance.
The U.S. Department of Education defines homelessness as lacking a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
Students who live in motels or hotels, or share a single-family home with multiple families qualify for McKinney-Vento and other forms of educational assistance, but not for housing assistance.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition excludes families with any type of housing.
“It’s really important to understand that homelessness isn’t a single thing,” Murray said.
Though students might have shelter, she said, without a stable home environment, it can be difficult for them to succeed in school.
Unlike most housing services, the McCarver Elementary program used the broader definition when searching for families in need. Lawmakers had worked to establish similar programs in other parts of the state, but none of the measures are getting through this legislative session.
Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, tutored at the school before he became a lawmaker. He said he’s impressed with the program’s impact on students’ educational success and mobility.
“You can’t teach a kid who’s not there,” he said.
He’s sponsoring Senate Bill 6338, which would require the state Department of Commerce to give preference to projects involving collaborative partnerships between school districts and public-housing authorities that benefit children from low-income families. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, but it did not get a vote in the House.
Also modeled after the McCarver Elementary program were companion measures to create a two-year pilot program to provide housing for homeless students and their families.
Senate Bill 6365 and House Bill 2736 would allocate $300,000 to provide rental assistance for homeless families within a district to offset transportation costs, but neither made it past the deadline for legislation to pass out of a committee.