By Christina Whiting
A countrywide program that works to provide consistent, uninterrupted education to students experiencing homelessness is helping Kenai Peninsula students succeed at school.
Students in Transition provides advocacy to help students and families find resources for food, shelter, clothing, transportation and permanent housing. It assists with school enrollment, procuring school records and documents, tutoring, completing applications for programs such as Food Stamps and Denali Kid Care and referrals to local health and social services agencies.
It also provides free school lunches, school supplies, basic clothing and emergency food, all on a case-by-case basis.
“There are a number of reasons students may be homeless, including unaffordable housing, a lack of jobs, the seasonal economy, family relocation, health issues, neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence, incarceration, home foreclosure and poverty,” said community liaison Amanda Neal. “Homeless teens may have chosen to leave home or been kicked out, or their parents may have left or are not available.”
Under the McKinney-Vento Law, enacted in 1987 and reauthorized in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Legislation, federal funds are allotted to all states to protect homeless students, mandating equal access to educational programs and services. Under the law, all school districts should have access to a homeless liaison. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District SIT Program was established in 2003 and currently has two homeless liaisons.
Kelly King is the full-time program coordinator/liaison serving all schools north of Ninilchik, including Seward and Tyonek. Amanda Neal works part-time to serve schools south of Ninilchik.
“Our job as liaisons is to remove barriers to education and serve as a bridge between students experiencing homelessness and the local support networks in their communities,” King said.
Students qualify for the program if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. This can include sleeping in a shelter, couch surfing, living in substandard housing or in a tent, or a student not living with a parent or legal guardian.
Students may be referred to the program by school staff, self-referral, community members or friends. Once the referral is returned, the liaison contacts the student or family and works to determine program eligibility. Students must be enrolled in a KPBSD school and the liaisons can assist with the process of enrollment and then provide the additional supports.
“One way to help the issue of homelessness is to get involved,” Neal said. “Advocate for services for families, volunteer at local agencies and with programs that help support these families, and make donations to local food banks.”
Adult Public Assistance and local churches, food banks, businesses and community members assist vulnerable students as well. In Homer, SIT has received donations of food, supplies and clothing from the Methodist Church, the Food Pantry, Salvation Army, the Rotary and community members.
Challenges students in temporary living situations may face include chronic hunger and fatigue, erratic school attendance, attendance at multiple schools, gaps in learning, transportation problems, poor hygiene and/or clothing, social and emotional issues and being unprepared for class.
“Not having a place to call home can be devastating and lead to feelings of embarrassment, shame and guilt,” King said. “We use the term ‘in transition’ instead of ‘homeless’ because homeless can evoke fear in individuals not wanting to be identified this way,;many of whom are in a temporary situation.”
If a parent is in the picture, the SIT liaisons work closely with them to coordinate services. If there is no parent or no contact between the youth and the parent, they work directly with the student to complete a needs assessment. All SIT services are offered confidentially.
The SIT program is funded by awards from a competitive grant through the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.
“We are also lucky enough to have a donations account that we utilize for things not covered by grant funds,” King shared.
The annual cost per student to go through the program depends on the needs of each qualifying student. Liaisons complete a needs assessment with each student/family to see how they can best be helped.
“Not all students or families may need everything we are able to offer,” Neal continued. “We approach each situation individually and do what we can for them specifically.”
During this 2012-2013 school year, 262 homeless students were identified, 65 south of Ninilchik and 197 north of Ninilchik. This was just under 3% of the KPBSD total student population.
“While 3% is a small percentage, it’s important to recognize we’re still talking about hundreds of students,” Neal said.
Students do not carry over from year to year so enrollment starts at 0 each fall. Currently, for the 2013-2014 school year, 26 students are being served in the southern Kenai Peninsula and 43 students in the central Kenai Peninsula. Of these 67 students, 23 are unaccompanied youth (homeless youth not living with a parent or guardian). The remaining 44 are students whose families lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.
“Despite the difficulties of their home life, it is inspiring that these kids are so focused and still in school,” Neal said.
To learn more about the Students In Transition program, refer a student, volunteer or make a donation, contact the liaisons directly: Central Peninsula and Seward areas – Kelly King, 714-8869, firstname.lastname@example.org; Homer area – Amanda Neal, 226-1890, email@example.com. Or visit the website http://bit.ly/TransitionsKPBSD.
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