Local schools help guide growing number of homeless students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Right now, 7,720 students in West Virginia schools have been identified by the Department of Education as homeless.Frances Pack has spent nearly a decade making sure those students get the education they need."A school counselor actually just called me saying a family's home burned down and asked, 'What do we do?' They know to call me with the details. Counselors and attendance directors are my best allies," said Pack, the homeless facilitator for Kanawha County Schools.Last year, 935 students were identified as homeless in Kanawha County.When it comes to data collection in schools, the term "homeless" could mean a variety of things. The student may be living with someone who's not their legal guardian or in a shelter. He or she may be in between foster homes or reside in a hotel with family. Or, the child or teen might live in a car or an abandoned building."Every year the number increases, usually by about 200 students. Yes, more students are homeless than in the past, but we've also gotten better at identifying them," Pack said.The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was reauthorized in 2002, administers grant funding to support homeless youth outreach programs and provides an equal opportunity for a public education.Nearly 20 different grants are in place to support the West Virginia Department of Education to help gather comprehensive information about children and youths and the obstacles that stand in the way of their regular attendance in school.Homeless liaisons such as Pack are leading those efforts, doing everything from providing transportation for the student to get to school and working to ensure students in temporary homes don't have to jump between school districts.Each time a student changes schools, it could set their progress back by four to six months, Pack said.
Not only is it difficult for older students because school systems have different requirements for graduation, but students of all ages are affected socially if they hop from school to school, Pack said."A lot of times, the only stability these kids have is at school. So much of their life is unstable. If you're changing schools all the time, it's hard to establish friendships because you're scared you'll lose them again," she said.Teachers can play a powerful role in the lives of homeless students, Pack said.She suggests that teachers encourage a buddy system and pair a new student up with someone who advises all school faculty and staff to be aware of the child's life outside of school when it comes to homework and other projects."There may be 10 people in one small home that share two bedrooms. When you're sharing residence with someone else, you may stay away from the home as long as possible -- then your chance of allowing them to stay there is better," Pack said. "These kids don't have a lot of time to sit down with a parent and do homework.
"Teachers need to be aware that there are challenges. Some families might not come forward with their struggles because it's embarrassing for them."The stories that Pack has heard during her nine years in the position are sometimes difficult to take, but she focuses on her job and in giving the students a chance at a future."It's a very sad thing. You realize the ramifications of what might happen to the children in these situations and how difficult life is for them when their residence is compromised. I see families that cycle through a lot. They'll start in a shelter, then find permanent housing, [and] then before I know it they're back in a shelter again. It can be hard to take," she said.For more information, visit wvde.state.wv.us then click the "community" tab and the "homeless children" tab to find a list of attendance directors and homeless liaisons across the state.Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.
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