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While Scappoose, St. Helens school districts report lower rates, some challenges remain to reach homeless students

PMG GRAPHIC: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Homeless student counts in Columbia County school districts have actually declined across the board, though Rainier and Clatskanie saw increases, according to figures released by the Oregon Department of Education last week. Student homelessness is on the rise in Oregon, and while St. Helens and Scappoose school districts are doing well statistically, the problem is as tangible as a 15-year-old sleeping in a car on a rainy school night.   

The Oregon Department of Education in a homeless student report released Nov. 21 showed an uptick in homelessness with 3.88% of all students across the state being homeless, compared to St. Helens and Scappoose rates of homelessness at 3.08% and 2.07% rates, respectively, during the 2018-2019 school year.

According to the 2018-19 Homeless Count, 22,215 students in Oregon qualified as being homeless. The figure is a 2% increase over last year's statewide homeless student count of 21,746.

The national average is 2.5%, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.

Federal law defines a homeless student as one lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. NCHS data show that students who experience homelessness are significantly less likely to graduate from high school.

"Homelessness is traumatic for students, and hurts them in the classroom," explains St. Helens Superintendent Scot Stockwell.

Students are now more at risk as the number of homeless students in St. Helens has increased from 89 to 109 students since last year, he said. 

Many "double up" by staying with family members or friends, while others live in motels, RVs or sleep on couches at friend's houses.  

PMG FILE PHOTO - The National Center for Homeless Education provides information to school districts receiving federal Title I-A funds about how to serve homeless student populations, including set-aside funds to help such students acquire clothing, personal school supplies, food, medical and dental service, and more. A St. Helens School District memo, one that touched on the proximity of local homelessness and the challenges homeless students face, reported that "in the foothills of our county, there are wooden spaces that allow people to camp or stay in trailer's largely unnoticed."

Often, students are living without a parent and are categorized as "unaccompanied." St. Helens has 28 students categorized as such this year.

U.S. Department of Education policy requires districts receiving Title I-A funding, including St. Helens and Scappoose, to direct a portion of those funds to help homeless students. Both districts have staff liaisons who counsel and aid students with essentials such as school supplies, clothes, food and referrals to emergency housing.

That assistance, coupled with partnerships with Columbia River Fire & Rescue, Kiwanis and other groups, is making a difference.

"Lots of homeless kids are succeeding here and some are going on to trades, community colleges and four-year colleges," Stockwell said.

Scappoose school officials report similar challenges and successes. 

"We partner with local agencies to get stable housing, food, medical care, whatever homeless families need," said Whitney Hessong, Scappoose School District's special programs director. "We even have a backpack program where, on Fridays, our kids can take home weekend food for their families."

Rainier, Vernonia and Clatskanie school districts have respective rates of 3.23, 3.35 and 4.4% homelessness, all but Clatskanie below the state average and far below many comparable rural areas.

Portland Public Schools have an even lower 2.5% homeless rate, illustrating a long-standing pattern of Oregon's smaller, rural districts often have the highest homelessness rates, such as Mapleton, in the Coast Range west of Eugene which counts nearly 30 percent of its 150 students as homeless.  

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