New America Media, Question & Answer,
Ed. Note: New data show the number of homeless students in California has spiked in recent years. As of the 2012-2013 school year, some 270,000 of the state’s public school student were homeless at some point, accounting for a quarter of all homeless students in the country. But despite the growing need, Long Beach Unified School District was the only district in the state to reference homeless students in its three-year Local Control Accountability Plan, submitted in June as part of a new funding law that directs more money to high need students. LBUSD Homeless Liaison James Suarez spoke to NAM Education Editor Peter Schurmann about what prompted the move and the unique needs of the district’s homeless student population.
Why did LBUSD include homeless students in its LCAP?
LBUSD felt that identifying homeless students — even though this student population is embedded in the “low income” category — was important in recognizing that there are significant differences for these youngsters in needs, not only academic achievement, but counseling, social/emotional issues, etc. By listing homeless students as a distinct category in the [district’s] LCAP — not to diminish the other groups of needy students — I think creates an awareness and attention.
Are you seeing a spike in the homeless student population in Long Beach?
Since the downturn in the economy, there has been an increase in homeless students in the district. As a district, we are getting much better in identifying students who are homeless or “at-risk of homelessness.” Staff at school sites are recognizing signs of homelessness and are making a real difference in providing information to counselors and other specialists to be able to provide a safety net for students. In addition, the district has put resources for case management to enhance efforts in support of students and families.
Do you have a sense of who these students are? What are the ethnic breakdowns of the population?
Most recently, we are finding an increase in students from Central America and unaccompanied youth.
What special educational services do homeless students need that might differentiate them from other low-income students?
Two of the main services that we provide are school uniforms/supplies and transportation. Transportation is very important in that it eliminates a barrier for many homeless students — getting to school. That translates in attendance issues and consequently, lack of instruction (not being in class) and lack of achievement. If students are in school and getting instruction, they can achieve.
Transportation also ensures the stability in keeping a child at one school, even if the family is moving around. Before the homeless education laws, homeless families who are very transient, moved their child from school to school to school, thus creating a fragmented education for the children or, worse yet, a dropout situation. Current laws protect the students from moving school to school by requiring the District to provide transportation to the “school of origin” if it is feasible. That means that even though the family is moving around the city, the student remains at the same school, creating a stable environment.
How does the school identify homeless students that may not want to be identified as such? What are the red flags to look for?
There are signs that students may be homeless or “at risk of becoming” homeless. Some of these signs are exhaustion, excessive absenteeism/tardiness, disheveled clothes, lack of proper cleanliness, etc. But there are more subtle signs that sometimes elude us — such as an acute need for attention or safety, which is a basic need for all students, but for homeless students, this is of paramount concern. We are getting better in identifying these students through professional development and site-based training.
For many homeless students, school has become the main service provider for them and their families. Is that your sense?
It is. If not for any other reason, the need for stability and consistency is vastly underrated for these students. The fact that their home life is clearly compromised and a real concern for these students, the six hours at school provide the comfort of a known commodity and a place to rely on. The school provides the steadiness that may be missing at home. For most children, this need is already met by their home, but for homeless students, the school becomes their stable “home.”
Have there been cuts to homeless service programs in the city, and if so, how has that impacted your work?
Although I can’t comment for the City of Long Beach, I can say that in recent years, there has been a tremendous effort to connect the district’s homeless education programs with the agencies of the city. In addition, the continuing cooperation for over a decade between the city and the district to create and maintain a hub for non-profit shelters, public and private agencies and the district has been a tremendous win for homeless families.
The Villages of Cabrillo has several shelters and the district has its Bethune Transition Center housed in the Villages. This commitment to providing a local presence in the area in which there is a confluence of homeless families makes the services to students and families seamless.
The District’s Bethune Transitional Center provides a one-stop place for families to go to receive services form district staff — school enrollment help, school uniforms and supplies, basic needs, counseling, school intake, and referrals to other agencies for housing assistance. The staff at Bethune also work with the school sites to understand the needs of homeless students and is charged with case management. The Center gives front-line assistance where it is needed most.
What is the role of the liaison in serving homeless students? Is there enough funding to meet the need?
Through the leadership of the Board of Education, Superintendent and Executive Staff who all recognize the need, the homeless education program is supported. In addition, we have been fortunate to win the state’s competitive McKinney-Vento grant as a supplement to our Title I Reservation for homeless education. The role of the liaison really is at the center of the administration of effective programs for homeless students and families. But the real work comes at Bethune and at the school sites. These dedicated employees not only recognize the need for supporting homeless students, but take decisive action on their behalf. But let’s also recognize the fact that the district supports (as our mission indicates) every student, every day.