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Homeless students increase on Whidbey

School officials are starting to get an idea of the numbers of students that attend class who are considered homeless.

More than 50 homeless students have been identified at the Oak Harbor School District and 20 such students have been identified at the Coupeville School District.

Those numbers are up from the previous year when six were identified in Coupeville and 26 were identified in Oak Harbor.

Those numbers are expected to increase by the end of the school year.

“I think they will keep going up this year,” said Gail LaVassar, a program coordinator for the Readiness to Learn and Families in Transition programs on the island. She added that the number could top 100 in Oak Harbor by the end of the school year.

The number of homeless identified students in the South Whidbey School District is at 74. However, LaVassar said that district’s number is higher because it was a pilot for the program that started a year earlier.

She attributed the numbers to a broadening definition of homeless students and with “liaisons” who started work in the Coupeville and Oak Harbor school districts this year. Those liaisons are training district staff to identify characteristics associated with homeless youth.

“It’s a reality of today’s world,” said Coupeville Superintendent Bill Myhr. “Rules and regulations about how to handle homeless children should let everybody know it’s a problem.”

Legislation called the McKinney-Vento Act was re-authorized in 2001, and defines homeless children as those who lack a fixed, regular night time residence.

These children include those who have to share housing with other people, live in motels or otherwise lack adequate housing.

Jennifer James-Fuentes, liaison for Oak Harbor School District, said there are students living in parks, recreational vehicles, cars and in shelters.

Some of the characteristics of homelessness James-Fuentes taught staff to watch for include missing paperwork, wearing dirty clothes and appearing unwashed.

When those students are identified, steps can be made to help ensure a stable academic environment.

LaVassar said that students lose an average of three to six months of teaching time if they are forced to switch schools in the middle of the school year.

One thing the legislation provides to ensure a student’s environment is to transport students who have had to leave a school district back to their old school, LaVassar said.

Currently there is a student in Anacortes going to school in Oak Harbor, LaVassar said.

“The main reason for that is continuity,” LaVassar said.

She added during a recent Coupeville School Board meeting that school can become one of the only stable environments in a homeless student’s life.

LaVassar said students can be further hampered by the limited subsidized housing options on the island, a problem which can separate families.

An example is domestic violence shelters which don’t allow males above the age of 12.

Families will get a bit of relief in six months when a new shelter in Oak Harbor is expected to be complete.

James-Fuentes said that the first goal is to identify the numbers of homeless students on the island.

Once that is known, steps can be taken to help them.

James-Fuentes said that she’s helped current homeless students by making sure their paper work and vaccinations are up to date, and directing them to assistance programs such as food banks.

LaVassar said that affected families can be directed to programs that help them keep their kids in school. Those programs include gasoline vouchers, housing vouchers and transportation assistance, among others.

The Whidbey Island program is funded through a $40,000 grant from the Office for the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

LaVassar sought the grant after noticing a disturbing trend with students enrolled in another program she coordinates — Readiness to Learn.

Readiness to Learn works with at-risk students to improve their learning environment. However, as families went through the program, one of the biggest issues LaVassar said interfered with students’ academics was a lack of available housing. This prompted her to apply for the grant money which resulted in more help for the island’s homeless school children.

You can reach News-Times reporter Nathan Whalen at nwhalen@whidbeynewstimes.com.

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