New law funds more help for Washington’s homeless students

VIDEO: 4th grade students meet with Gov. Jay Inslee

Gov. Jay Inslee meets with 4th grade students from McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma after signing into law a bill to help homeless students.
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Gov. Jay Inslee meets with 4th grade students from McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma after signing into law a bill to help homeless students.

Stability made all the difference for Ramona Millspaugh and her two grandchildren, students at McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma.

A partnership between Tacoma Public Schools and the Tacoma Housing Authority provided support that helped her family avoid the kind of multiple moves that often mean multiple school transfers — and poor educational outcomes — for low-income kids.

“It’s nice to be able to raise my grandchildren in one home,” she said.

Millspaugh was one of the onlookers Friday as Gov. Jay Inslee came to Tacoma to sign a bill designed to help spread educational support to children dealing with homelessness throughout the state.

The bill-signing ceremony took place at the old McKinley Elementary, where McCarver students are temporarily housed while their school is being renovated.

“Homework is tough,” Inslee told the kids and adults in the audience. “But it’s even harder when you don’t have a home.”

The new law creates a competitive grant program for school districts that will supplement the $950,000 the federal government provides to help Washington students experiencing homelessness.

More than 35,000 Washington students — about 3.3 percent of all the state’s public school kids — were counted as homeless during the 2014-15 school year, according to the state superintendent’s office.

The new legislation offers $2 million in state funding to pay for school personnel working with homeless students and to create more local partnerships like the one in Tacoma.

It’s nice to be able to raise my grandchildren in one home

Ramona Millspaugh, McCarver Elementary School grandparent

State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, the bill’s original sponsor, began work on the measure during last year’s legislative session, and shepherded it through the Legislature to passage this year.

He said he felt honored when the nonprofit organization Columbia Legal Services asked him to take on the task of passing the legislation.

“Those kids deserve our support,” Fey said.

Also in attendance Friday was state Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, another of the bill’s sponsors.

“The success of the McCarver project has shown that the lives of children have changed,” she said.

Before the McCarver project began in 2011, its student population had a turnover rate that ranged as high as 179 percent, according to housing authority data.

Now, the rate is down to about 80 percent, said Michael Mirra, Tacoma Housing Authority director.

The program offers rental assistance for families with children at McCarver who are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness. Assistance starts high, paying most of the rent, and tapers off to zero after five years.

Parents are asked to commit to keeping their children at McCarver, and they must agree to participate in their child’s education -- including attending teacher conferences, ensuring that kids arrive on time to school and making space at home for homework.

Housing authority caseworkers have offices at the school, and they help families gain access to job training, mental health and other social services.

Reading-test scores increased 33 points in the first year of the program. And the average income of families participating in the program also increased.

Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said the school district and the housing authority are working to expand the program to other Tacoma schools.

Stambaugh said the new legislation doesn’t include enough funding to duplicate the McCarver program in every school district in the state. But she said she will work next year on “future steps” that would “impact homeless students at a greater level”

Millspaugh said help from the McCarver program went beyond paying rent.

“It was not just the money, but the self-esteem,” she said. “It was everyone saying, ‘You can do this.’ 

Millspaugh said her daughter began the program five years ago, but when she was unable to complete it, Millspaugh moved in with the family and became part of the McCarver program.

She is now vice president of the McCarver PTA and has enjoyed taking parenting classes.

“Everything is so different than it was 30 years ago,” Millspaugh said.

Thanks to the program, she added, “the mistakes I made with my own children, I won’t make with my grandchildren.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo