School District Works to Serve Growing Number of Homeless Students
For some local students, the toughest question they’ll ever face isn’t on a test, and it doesn’t come from a teacher. It comes in the form of a single word, followed by a colon and a daunting blank space, on an enrollment application.
The word is “address,” and for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District’s homeless population, the answer is often an old car, an overcrowded shelter, or simply a question mark.
According to Tamara Sutor, 99 local students have experienced homelessness so far during the 2012-13 school year.
To some, it would seem an unlikely problem in a district with Middleton-Cross Plains’ wealth. But Sutor, a transitional education coordinator and social worker for the district, said the number of students without stable housing has risen sharply in recent years.
In 2005-06, district records show 36 students were identified as homeless. By 2011-12, the number was at 95 – a mark that has already been surpassed this year despite the fact that the summer is still months away.
Valerie’s teenage son is one of the 99. (Her last name is not used here to protect the family’s privacy.)
Valerie lost her job in December of 2011. With a bachelor’s degree in business administration, she moved to the Middleton area a decade ago, coming from a large metropolitan center.
She attends church, once had aspirations of completing graduate school, and spends much of her time trying to regain financial stability.
They currently spend their nights at a YWCA in Madison, where Valerie cares for her son, mentors others who have sought refuge at the shelter, cooks and cleans.
She tells her son, who she hopes to keep in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, not to worry about their situation. “He’ll ask me what we’re going to do, and I tell him we’ll be fine,” she said. “I tell him not to worry.”
She said her number one priority right now is to be an advocate for her son, who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a host of other medical issues.
Valerie has a lot on her mind, but one thing she doesn’t have to worry about is being kicked out of the school district because she no longer has a Middleton address.
A sweeping piece of federal legislation dictates many of the steps educators in Middleton-Cross Plains currently take to accommodate homeless students like Valerie’s son. That law is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was reauthorized by the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act. Local educators say its stipulations safeguard pupils from being bounced from district to district because of an unstable or nonexistent home address.
But McKinney-Vento is also an unfunded federal mandate, so while it clearly outlines the desired outcomes, it doesn’t provide the resources to accomplish them.
Sutor said McKinney-Vento’s objective is to provide “as much educational stability as possible for students whose families are without housing.” She said research shows every time a student switches schools, an estimated four to six months of academic progress are lost.
Sutor said the number of students identified as experiencing homelessness continues to rise due to two factors. One is the economy. The other is ramped up efforts to identify and help students without stable housing.
“I’m not just seeing the number of homeless students rising,” she observed. “I’m seeing people who are experiencing homelessness for longer, particularly as affordable housing in the area diminishes.” (In the City of Middleton, the median home value is in excess of $280,000.)
According to McKinney-Vento, schools must immediately enroll homeless children and youth - even when school or health records, birth certificates, and proof of residency are not available.
Sutor said most who are homeless attempt to hide it from district officials, which further complicates the process. For that reason, district employees are trained to identify red flags that indicate a family might be without housing.
In some cases, students already enrolled in the district lose their homes. Such was the case for Valerie’s son.
In other instances, children arrive on registration day by themselves, without a parent or guardian to fill out their enrollment forms.
Sutor said the district’s goal is to identify those who need help, then provide it to them. The core of the program is academic, but the aid provided by Middleton-Cross Plains extends into other areas: parents are compensated for transportation, students receive free lunches, and more.
“To qualify you basically have to have nowhere else to go,” said Sutor. “If they live in a car, or a shelter, or a hotel room, they are immediately enrolled under our program.”
It wasn’t always this way. Sutor said that prior to McKinney-Vento, districts sometimes set up roadblocks that prevented homeless children from even getting into the classroom. In some cases, unaccompanied minors were even turned away on registration day.
The help provided today by Middleton-Cross Plains comes with some caveats. Compensation for gas is provided based on how many days a student actually attends class, for instance. (Busses are also available to some students.)
“We want their homelessness to be the last thing these kids think about while they’re at school,” Sutor said.
Valerie said she has the same hope for her son. The product of a middle class home, Valerie is now intimately familiar with organizations like the Middleton Outreach Ministry Food Pantry, Porchlight, and emergency aid provided through the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. She knows McKinney-Vento, and she knows how to get her mail via general delivery at the post office.
Her vocabulary is extensive and her manner is direct when answering questions about how she lives. “If you talked to me outside of this room, you probably wouldn’t know,” she said. “There are people from all walks of life who deal with this, and I think there is a lot of shame, even about things that are beyond people’s control.”
She said an important step is to “be humble enough to accept help.”
Sutor said the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District’s Transitional Education Program aims to continue providing it.
Families in need of help can contact Sutor at 608-829-9029.