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Schools see shocking increase in homeless students

When Kristi Gough heard the number of homeless students attending Franklin Elementary School this year, she was downright shocked. The coordinator for Missoula's McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Program says the school's jump from 60 homeless students last spring—already a significant increase from the previous year—to 88 this fall reveals a troubling problem district-wide.

"We saw a big increase last year," says Gough, "and we're certainly on par with those numbers or ahead of that this year."

According to Gough, schools in Missoula County served by the McKinney-Vento program included 430 homeless students at the end of the last academic year, a 25 percent increase from 2007. This year, the number of homeless students currently stands at 358, and Gough expects it to rise before spring.

click to enlarge Amy Zanoni, a volunteer tutor, has witnessed a dramatic increase in homeless students at Franklin Elementary School, from 60 last year to 88 this year. Officials say numbers are rising across the district. - PHOTO BY ANNE MEDLEY
  • Photo by Anne Medley
  • Amy Zanoni, a volunteer tutor, has witnessed a dramatic increase in homeless students at Franklin Elementary School, from 60 last year to 88 this year. Officials say numbers are rising across the district.

"That's only 75 shy of where we ended last year," she says. "That's a little disturbing."

The McKinney-Vento program defines homeless students as any child who lacks "a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." According to a report from the National Center on Family Homelessness that uses 2005 and 2006 data, Montana ranks 33rd in the nation for percentage of homeless children. The report says 38,000 children in Montana live in poverty. More than 4,200—or 9 percent—of those kids are homeless.

Local officials attribute Missoula's rising homeless student population to the current recession and are fighting to stabilize at least one aspect of these children's lives—their education. Gough serves homeless students in Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) through a grant with Women's Opportunity and Resource Development (WORD). She says children in families forced out of homes and into temporary housing suffer academically as well as emotionally, falling behind their peers by as much as nine months.

"They tend to be less rested, less nourished, so they don't function at the level they need to function at in school to be attentive students and able to give 100 percent," says Gough, a member of WORD since 1996. "They're sleeping all in one room with siblings and their parents, perhaps in a hotel somewhere...They may or may not have a place to study, so they're not doing homework."

The McKinney-Vento program has worked with MCPS since the early 1990s to supply homeless students with school supplies, transportation and tutoring, operating under the directives of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

Missoula's McKinney-Vento program receives an annual $88,000 grant from the state. Gough typically applies for several smaller grants as well, but she says she needs about $172,000 this year to meet the increased demand. The program is still $22,000 shy, she says.

The majority of MCPS's homeless students–209, according to Gough–are enrolled in elementary schools. And it's at Franklin Elementary where that increase is most noticeable.

Amy Zanoni, 23, sees 12 of Franklin's homeless students a day during half-hour tutoring sessions as an AmeriCorps volunteer with McKinney-Vento. She started at Franklin in September 2008, and took on the additional task of after-school tutoring at C.S. Porter Middle School this fall. She helps students with everyday tasks, as well as long division problems and spelling, sympathetic to the unsettled home lives of her "kiddos."

"When families are in these precarious situations–maybe they're living with another family and there's a household that's just too packed full–none of these environments are really conducive to work, to an ability to focus their energy on things that aren't their immediate situation," Zanoni says.

Zanoni, like Gough, says she expects to see many more new homeless students at Franklin before the year is out. It's already an overwhelming job, she says, for her and the other 58 volunteer McKinney-Vento tutors in Missoula to keep up with demand.

"It's intense. It's different," Zanoni says. "I think part of it is it's exhausting, it's a lot of having to be super 'on' all day. It can be draining...There are definitely days that it weighs heavy on my heart."

But Gough's latest concerns aren't just with rising numbers. She's also noticed a subtle alteration in demographics on a national level that appears to be trickling down to Missoula.

"We've seen a big change from it being just the families working two or three part-time jobs and trying to make ends meet to actually seeing some middle-income folks who have lost jobs, lost houses they've owned rather than just rentals," Gough says.

Marianne Moon, MCPS liaison to the McKinney-Vento program, agrees the district is finding more students from

middle-class families qualifying for McKinney-Vento services.

"It's really starting to cross class and socio-economic lines," says Moon, who joined MCPS 30 years ago and has worked with the McKinney-Vento program since its inception.

If there's a bright spot to the problem, WORD and MCPS both claim significant improvements in student performance among those aided by the McKinney-Vento program. Zanoni says the extra attention helps homeless students "come out of their shells" academically and socially. And meeting the needs of an increasing homeless population fits well with MCPS's rededication to student performance and retention.

"We're very concerned about student achievement," says Moon. "Our priorities right now are increasing student achievement and reducing the dropout rate...So certainly we've thought through that we need to build capacity to serve these kids that are most vulnerable."

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