The school-day “routine” is anything but routine for some Hoosier children. It not only includes waking up, getting dressed and catching a bus but also no promise of clean clothes, the same place to sleep at night or anything to eat outside of a school lunch.
While these students might not meet some preconceived notions of what it means to be homeless — they are.
According to the 2015 Kids Count in Indiana Data Book, the Indiana Department of Education identified 15,777 homeless youth in 2013, an increase from 12,248 in 2010. Jennings County had the highest rate of student homelessness in Indiana.
For every 1,000 students in that county, 84 were listed as homeless. Estimating this population is difficult because, while it’s not always obvious when a child is homeless, the impact homelessness has on a student is clear.
Studies summarized by the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Public Schools show many homeless or highly mobile students suffer academic failures that may manifest themselves in “antisocial behaviors and increase the risk for social and emotional problems, with many subsequent implications for adult outcomes.”
In addition, children who frequently move are 35 percent more likely to repeat a grade and 77 percent more likely to have multiple behavioral problems.
The challenge to identify students can be complicated by students who stay with friends or double-up with relatives, hiding the fact that they may not have a home of their own. Even in the suburbs, student homelessness is on the rise.
“We have a lot of families who are in transition, who have had family crisis, who find themselves in positions they haven’t normally been in and don’t really know where to go,” said Kevin Gray, principal of Cedar Elementary in Avon.
Gray says school staff do their best during enrollment to identify students in these situations. But sometimes lives change, and a teacher will notice a red flag — a change in a student’s dress, hygiene or behavior. In those instances, Gray says, Avon’s commitment to cultural competency training helps school staff know how to respond.
A response can be more critical when a child actually is on the streets — a situation that demands taking care of basic needs and working to place students in schools when they often lack documentation of their educational history.
That’s where the federal McKinney-Vento Act comes into play. It guarantees educational access for H/HM students. Every school corporation designates a McKinney-Vento liaison to work with homeless families. The Youth Services Bureau in St. Joseph County operates facilities for homeless teens and young mothers. Shotunus Peterson, the bureau’s director of programs, says a working relationship with the local McKinney-Vento liaison is key to connecting homeless students and families with available resources.
Personal connections also are critical. In Avon, home visits build trust with families, making it easier to deliver services such as social skills training for children dealing with frustration in the classroom or enrolling children in the Backpack Club. Started by veteran teacher Holly Clark, the club provides backpacks full of food each Friday so the children can eat over the weekend.
You can help. Fill backpacks or tutor students by calling your local schools to seek volunteer opportunities. You can search for local mentoring programs at the Indiana Mentoring Partnership’s website, abetterhour.org.
As the number of homeless and highly mobile students in Indiana rises, educators and social service agencies are rising to meet the challenge. By standing with them, we can improve the chances some of Indiana’s most vulnerable youth will have for a productive and stable life.
Glenn Augustine is the interim chief executive officer of the Indiana Youth Institute.
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