The number of homeless kids attending public schools grows every year in Washington, topping 39,000 in the latest count. These homeless students present unique challenges for educators — some aren’t well fed or rested and they may not have a good place to study or do homework.
Data kept by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction showed at least 1,940 of those kids were in Thurston County schools during the 2015-16 school year.
That’s a lot for community schools to handle, and the years-in-the-making problem has spurred many attempts at meeting homeless kids’ needs.
Advocates inside and outside our local schools are making some headway, and a recent Tumwater School District project is an example of going to great lengths to turn the tide.
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Tumwater schools developed a Community Schools Initiative through a partnership with local nonprofit TOGETHER!. This initiative brings services for resource-challenged kids into the school house — offering everything from mental health care to basic needs such as immunizations.
Begun in 2014, the program has grown to include seven schools in the Tumwater district. Each school has a resource center — or pantry — where kids and their families can find food, new clothing, school supplies, hygiene products, and other donated materials.
These are laudable steps, but Tumwater took a significant step this year to assist homeless students further. In a unique local partnership with the Housing Authority of Thurston County, schools and housing specialists secured five dwellings in the new Allen Orchard development across the street from Peter G. Schmidt Elementary School.
As the school year opens this month, five Peter G. Schmidt families with children who have been homeless will have a place to call home. In this first-time project, the authority screened families that had been identified by a school counselor and is subsidizing rent for the duplex-style units.
Unfortunately this project touches just a tip of the need. Peter G. Schmidt has 27 homeless students, a fraction of the 185 in Tumwater schools overall. North Thurston Public Schools had 798, the most in the county last year, and Olympia had 227.
But it is a start. It represents the kind of thinking that is needed as our Thurston County community works to get hundreds of homeless or near-homeless families and children into shelter.
Time will tell, but this project seems certain to make a difference in the lives of those who participate. As Olympian reporter Zoe Sayler noted in her recent story about the project, homeless students are two times more likely to repeat a grade than their housed counterpart, and they have three times the rate of behavioral or emotional troubles.
As this project is tested over time, we hope it provides lessons for other districts that are reaching out to help the kids who too easily are forgotten.