The number of homeless schoolchildren grew by 9.1 percent statewide but was nearly unchanged in Whatcom County in the past year, according to new data from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The information covered the 2014-15 school year and included historical data, with school districts reporting how many of their students from preschool through 12th grade were homeless.
The federal McKinney-Vento Act defines a student as homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
Released earlier this month, the report showed that in 2014-15:
▪ 35,511 Washington students — 3.3 percent of the state’s public preschool-12th grade population — were counted as homeless.
▪ That’s up 9.1 percent from the 2013-14 school year, and a 90.2 percent increase from 2007-08, when the state first started tracking homeless students.
▪ In Whatcom County, 854 schoolchildren were homeless. That’s just 0.9 percent more than the previous school year.
▪ But compared to the 2007-08 school year, the number was a 25.5 percent increase in county students who were homeless.
“These kids sleep in campgrounds or under highways or on friends’ sofas,” said Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction. “And that can lead to them repeating grades or dropping out of school. We must make sure that school can be a stable influence in their lives and that they don’t fall behind.”
The graduation rate for homeless students in the class of 2015 was 51.9 percent, according to the state. For all students, it was 78.1 percent.
“It’s difficult to learn when you’re hungry or cold or don’t have a safe place at night,” said Steve Morse, director of student and family services for Bellingham School District.
Officials said they don’t have specific reasons for the increase of homeless students at the state level.
Possible factors include the lack of affordable housing options, unemployment or under-employment, and available services at the local level, state officials said, adding that recessions usually hit the poorest people the longest.
Local homeless students
In Bellingham, 477 students from preschool to high school were reported as homeless in 2104-15, virtually unchanged from a year before (471), but a 31 percent increase since the 2007-08 school year.
The majority of homeless students in Bellingham were reported as “doubled up,” meaning they were temporarily living with friends or family but had no permanent home.
In Ferndale, 129 students were reported as homeless in 2104-15, essentially unchanged from a year before (126), but a nearly 52 percent increase since the 2007-08 school year.
Most homeless students in Ferndale also were doubled up.
Bellingham and Ferndale are the two school districts in Whatcom County with the most students.
Local school officials didn’t have specific reasons for the increase in homeless students since 2007-08 but thought they were part of larger trends as well as district employees being better trained at identifying students who are homeless and helping them.
“I think we’re a reflection of the economic picture all over the country and the state,” Morse said.
Two new reports found that about 42 percent of Whatcom County households struggle to afford basic necessities, and that affordable dental care, housing help and living-wage jobs were the greatest needs for poor Whatcom County residents and the hardest for them to find.
The McKinney-Vento Act requires that homeless students be given the same access to education as other students, in part by keeping them in the school district they were in before becoming homeless and providing transportation to and from school. Doing so helps provide them with consistency at a time when other parts of their lives are unstable, officials said.
Other efforts include providing free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch at school.
Bellingham School District, which has a Homeless Support Program, also helps by providing tutoring for elementary school students, Morse said, and connecting homeless students to other service providers for needs such as coats and food.
Ferndale School District helps homeless students by providing donated school supplies, backpacks and hygiene products. For unaccompanied youths — those who are homeless and not in the custody of parents or guardians — the district lets them buy necessities like new shoes or clothes for school, according to Jill Iwasaki, executive director of student services.
The district also can provide gas money. Last year, it organized a vision clinic at one of the schools to help homeless or low-income students who might have needed glasses.
The goal is to plug students into services with little delay.
“It’s hard for children to be successful if there are any barriers in their way,” Iwasaki said.
Washington state receives about $950,000 per year from the federal government to help homeless students. That money is given to districts in the form of competitive grants, with money going to districts with the greatest need.
The money can be used for a variety of activities for homeless students. Those include helping to defray the excess cost of transportation; tutoring, instruction and enriched educational services; supplies and materials; and early childhood education programs.
Districts that don’t get McKinney-Vento grant funding can use Title I or other state or federal funding sources to support the educational needs of homeless students, according to OSPI.
Where do Whatcom County’s homeless students live?
Source: Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Education