Las Vegas Hard Numbers: 7000 Homeless Kids
For some districts, student homelessness may rival H1N1 as the number-one learning disruption this year.
At whitney elementary School in Las Vegas—where an estimated 85 percent of the students are either homeless or on the brink—Principal Sherrie Gahn wanted every child to have a new pair of shoes for the holidays last year.
Armed with a shopping list for each classroom and donated funds, Gahn and her school counselor filled cart after cart at the discount stores, piling up the more than 500 pairs needed.
But when the students tried on their new shoes, almost none of them fit.
It turned out that when teachers had compiled their size lists, many kids were wearing old shoes they had already outgrown. Others had pairs that were too big, borrowed from older relatives.
Finding the right size shoes is just one of many new challenges facing Clark County Public Schools, the nation’s fifth-largest school district, where 46 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals and the number of homeless children continues to soar.
Walt Rulffes, superintendent of Clark County Public Schools, said many homeless students feel they are marooned on a lonely island with little hope of escape. “The turmoil of these students includes hunger, insecurity, and loneliness, along with other social and emotional problems. This is a black eye for a society that can be measured by how it cares for its children,” Rulffes said. The district’s programs and services are aimed at “bringing some normality to these kids who deserve nothing less than an equal chance for success.”
In 1987, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Act, which requires state and local education agencies to provide homeless students with access to school, as well as services and support (see sidebar on page TK for some of Clark County’s efforts). To determine who qualifies for aid, districts must use the federal definition of homeless, which is anyone lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”
Clark County’s enrollment for 2008–09 was 311,240, up about 1 percent over the prior year. A similar increase is expected this fall. That’s the smallest enrollment growth in 25 years, after increases of 4 to 6 percent had become the norm. But the number of those enrolled who are homeless is disproportionate to the overall numbers.
Until a couple of years ago, the district’s homeless student population had been relatively steady—save a spike in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, when hundreds of families relocated temporarily from the south. But between 2007 and 2008, the number of homeless students in Clark County jumped 45 percent, to 4,700.
By the end of the 2009 academic year, the headcount was over 5,800. The expectation is that the number will continue to grow during 2009–10.
“It’s staggering,” said Myra Berkovits, coordinator of the district’s Title I/Homeless Outreach Program for Education (HOPE) office. “People who would ordinarily never be homeless are finding themselves in very difficult situations.”
Not Just Clark County
In the latest survey by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), 330 school districts nationwide reported that by the fall of 2008 they had already met or exceeded their homeless student count for the entire prior academic year. A whopping 459 school districts reported their homeless student populations were up at least 25 percent between the 2006–07 and 2007–08 academic years.
Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest district, saw its homeless student population jump 35 percent in one year, to over 13,000 in 2008. Smaller districts are struggling to serve more homeless students than ever.
Nationally, the number of homeless children last spring was estimated to have surpassed one million. Many districts have had increases of 75 to 100 percent over the last two years, according to a recent article in the New York Times. And things may well continue to get worse before they get better. San Antonio public schools enrolled twice as many homeless students as last year during the first two weeks of this year, according to that same article.
The number of families who are new to being homeless is also on the rise—a different population with somewhat different needs.
“Maybe they’ve never been poor, maybe they’re working class or low income, but until now they’ve always managed to keep the roof over their heads,” says Barbara Duffield, NAEHCY’s policy director in Washington, D.C. “They don’t know where or how to ask for help, or are reticent about asking.”
The Federal Response
Not surprisingly, the number of districts that are seeking federal homeless education grants for the first time is going up, too.
The McKinney-Vento law requires every district to have a homeless student liaison, and to provide essential services such as transportation so that students don’t have to switch schools even if their temporary residence changes. The federal stimulus package includes increased grants for homeless student outreach. Many districts will be first-time recipients.
“The grants are going to be helpful not only for what the money provides, but as an impetus for system-wide reform,” Duffield explains. “The work of the liaisons that has always been so critical is now in the spotlight.”
Much of the economic growth in the Las Vegas Valley, in which Whitney Elementary is located, depended on the housing and construction boom, which has come to a near standstill. No longer the nation’s fastest-growing region, southern Nevada leads the country in home foreclosures and unemployment. Severe state budget cuts in both the public and the private sectors means less funding for social service agencies and community groups. In turn, that puts an even greater burden on schools to fill the gaps in basic services for its most vulnerable students.
Clark County’s programs and partnerships help thousands of children each year. Operation School Bell, a cooperative endeavor that dates back to the 1970s, provides students with school and play clothes, socks, underwear, blankets, and coats—all brand-new. Several private nonprofit organizations, including Communities In Schools, operate a handful of campus health centers, where students receive vaccinations, annual physicals, and referrals to free and low-cost vision and dental care.
Whitney Elementary serves the low-income public housing and weekly motels that dot the East Las Vegas neighborhood. Many students live in small tract houses shared by multiple families. Heat, electricity, and running water are often absent. Nearly 35 percent of Whitney’s students are English-language learners, compared with the district’s average of 20 percent.
Whitney’s principal Gahn has become an aggressive advocate for her needier students, recruiting volunteers to help with everything from eye exams to haircuts to food deliveries. Caring for Kids, a local nonprofit, delivers 100 “backpacks” of food each week to Whitney, but that’s not enough to meet the need. Last year Gahn’s staff put together another 150. This fall she expects to need even more. “How do I tell the 251st child there isn’t enough food for her?” Gahn asks. “It’s an impossible kind of triage.”
In 2007, leaders of the hospitality and gaming industries teamed up to support Three Square, a new regional food bank. In addition to delivering weekend backpacks to 144 Clark County campuses, food is supplied to 264 nonprofit and religious groups, many of which serve students.
Three Square provided breakfast and lunch at 11 neighborhood sites this summer, feeding students who might otherwise go hungry when school is out of session. At one community center, the food bank’s staff quizzed children about their favorite menu items, part of Three Square’s ongoing survey to gauge “customer” satisfaction.
Chicken nuggets got high marks, as did small containers of fresh fruit. “How about strawberry milk?” one third grader suggested.
The scope of the need “can feel overwhelming,” says Julie Murray, Three Square’s chief executive officer. “But the best thing we can do is to make sure students and their families have enough food consistently. That’s how our community will be successful in the long run.”
Signs of Distress
As the homeless student roster expands beyond those most typically at risk, Clark County has ramped up training for school staff.
“You might be the first to notice signs that a student’s living situation has become unstable,” HOPE’s Berkovits told a library filled with elementary school teachers during one early morning meeting. “Are they wearing the same clothes day after day? How is their hygiene? Do they seem tired? Hungry?”
Catching on to what may be happening is a key first step for teachers and schools wishing to step in as early as possible to prevent all sorts of severe disruptions of learning.
Students have gone home in the afternoon to find their family evicted from their home or locked out of an apartment or motel room. Often families’ belongings are held in lieu of back rent that they cannot afford to pay. Berkovits’s office provides plastic storage containers so students can keep some items at school, which eases fears and helps them focus on their academics.
Older students remain an under-identified homeless population. The Clark County district estimates—and social service agencies agree—that there are thousands of additional students in the county who meet the definition of homeless but have not yet been identified, particularly in the upper grades.
To help address these unmet needs, this fall the district will try out drop-in centers at several middle and high schools, offering students a chance to do their schoolwork on computers, get clothing and food, and have access to counseling.
Kathleen Boutin, founder and executive director of the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, says thousands of high school students are “couch surfers,” staying a few nights at a time with family or friends, but without anything close to a permanent residence.
The Nevada’s Partnership’s own drop-in center sees about 300 to 400 individuals each month, including a large number of students who come in regularly for food and clothing and to do homework. She praised the district’s plan to focus on a demographic group that is too often invisible.
“These kids are academically interested,” Boutin said. “They know education is their ticket out of homelessness and poverty.”