New federal reporting process paints clearer picture of kids in need

Newly released data from the Oregon Department of Education shows a decrease in homeless students across the state.

According to Rob Saxton, the former superintendent of Tigard-Tualatin and Sherwood school districts and the current deputy superintendent of public instruction, there are 18,615 students in Oregon who were homeless at some point during the 2012-13 school year.

That’s down from more than 20,300 in 2011-12.

But don’t get too excited. Much of that drop is due to a change in federal reporting requirements, not because fewer students are living on the street.

Saxton said districts are doing whatever they can to help students who find themselves with no place to live.

“As we head into the holiday season, this report is a reminder of the stark reality faced by thousands of Oregon students and their families on a daily basis,” Saxton said. “No child should have to worry about where they are going to sleep or where their next meal is coming from, but unfortunately, far too many of our students have to do just that.”

Sherwood School District and Tigard-Tualatin School District had about the same percentage of homeless students: About 1.6 percent of the districts’ populations were identified as having been homeless at some point last year.

That number equates to 202 students in Tigard-Tualatin and 80 students in Sherwood.

Beaverton had the highest number of homeless students in the state last year, with more than 1,370 students, about 3.5 percent of its student population.

Oregon school districts are required to have a homeless liaison on staff to provide services, support and resources to homeless youth. In the past, these liaisons reported the number of homeless students in their districts, but the change in federal reporting requirements have given districts a better tracking system for counting homeless students.

The new system counts students individually, rather than at the district level, Saxton said.

“This means that for the first time, we can identify duplicates in our counts due to students moving between districts mid-year,” said Crystal Greene, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Education. “The state-wide and county totals reported this year only count each student once regardless of the number of districts providing services to the student during the school year.”

Doing what they can

Beaverton and Tigard-Tualatin have a number of organizations on site to help homeless students and others facing hard times. The Caring Closet in Tigard-Tualatin and Clothes Closet in Beaverton provide clothing, hygiene items and other necessities to students in need. Both districts also house school-based health centers at Tigard High School and Merlo Station. The facilities provide health services to students across the districts.

“It’s really challenging to provide this kind of support,” said Catherine West, who runs Tigard-Tualatin’s Family Resource Center. The center works with families across the district and refers homeless families to local shelters and food pantries or other forms of assistance as they work to get back on their feet.

It is a growing problem. Student homeless rates have doubled in the past decade. Statewide, 3.2 percent of Oregon’s K-12 students were homeless at some point during the 2012-13 school year.

“It definitely feels like it has been increasing,” West said. “It is much harder to get into shelters than it was before. We have more families sleeping in their cars, when before if they were in that dire strait, there would be something out there for them.”

Waiting lists for shelters are often weeks-long, said Lisa Mentesana a homeless liaison with the Beaverton School District. That wait often forces people to take refuge with friends or family, or live out of their cars or in motel rooms.

Come together

Beaverton and Sherwood school districts, along with Gaston, Banks, Hillsboro and Forest Grove, have received a grant from the Oregon Department of Education to hire coaches to teach school staff about services available to homeless students.

“These are not people on the street with a cardboard sign,” Mentesana said. “Most have a place to lay their head at night, but it’s not stable, and it’s not in the best interest of the students’ education to live with that kind of instability.”

The new data makes it possible for districts to see how homeless students perform in the classroom, Greene said, and the results are what you’d expect.

Homeless students tend to have lower levels of academic performance than their peers and meet state expectations at much lower rates than other students.

In fact, homeless students underperform other students who live in poverty.

“These results paint a very clear picture about the effect of housing insecurity on student learning,” Saxton said. “We need to come together as communities and as a state to meet our students’ fundamental needs so that they can stop worrying about the basics and get back to being kids — learning, growing and fulfilling their potential.”

In Tigard, West said their center has referred students to shelters as far away as Hillsboro and is always looking for ways to support homeless students.

“We have even looked at the idea of renting an apartment and having it available for kids,” she said. “We haven’t been able to find something that works quite yet, but homelessness has been identified by a lot of people as a huge concern and need in this area, and there is a lot of energy to find a solution as a community.”

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