SPECIAL REPORT: Homelessness In University Place School District Jumps

But the number and percentage of homeless students is still relatively low compared to neighboring Lakewood and Tacoma. Officials say the biggest burden on the district involves transporting homeless students.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a special report about homeless students in the University Place School District, as well as the Puget Sound in general. Patch partnered with Investigate West for this report.

University Place’s public face isn’t one of poverty.

It boasts waterfront views and offers shopping at places like , and the will play host to the 2015 U.S. Open golf tournament, sure to attract thousands of well-to-do fans.

The is completing the final phase of an $86 million bond that voters approved in 2006, which included, among other things, a rebuilt junior high, a revamped music auditorium and a new pool. Its students boast some of the highest test scores in the state, and many of them continue their education after high school.

But UP isn’t immune to economic hardship.

In fact, like other school districts across the state, UP has seen a rise in the number of homeless students in its classrooms over the past several years, a change that has many districts grappling with how to help students even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.

An analysis of figures provided by Investigate West, Patch’s partner on this report, found that the school district had identified 45 homeless students during the 2009-10 school year, up from just 10 in 2006-07—one of the largest percentage increases in the Puget Sound region.

The actual number of homeless students in UP isn’t as large as in neighboring school districts.

For example, the Tacoma School District led the state with 1,194 homeless students, up 17 percent from 2006-07. The Clover Park School District in Lakewood remained nearly unchanged at 337 homeless students.

Costly transportation

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify and report homeless students and to guarantee those students transportation so they can stay at their original schools even if they have been forced to find emergency shelter outside the district. The districts are required to track how many students are living in motels, doubled up with relatives, in cars or in shelters. (Click here for a look at where homeless University Place students were living in 2009-10)

Being homeless can affect how children learn, can lead to depression, and can be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities, labels that stick with a child for years. (Click here to see related story)

“The main goal of identifying kids is so they can stay in their school of origin, so they have consistency with their peers, teachers and educational progress,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. That means providing cabs, bus passes, or other means of transportation for kids, even if it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school.

It’s up to individual school districts to squeeze that transportation money from their own budgets. “There is no pot of money for homeless students,” said Dyer. “It’s a big burden for districts.”

John Sander, executive director of special services for University Place, said many of UP’s homeless students come from Tacoma and Lakewood.

“Our biggest cost is transportation,” said Sander, who’s been with UP’s special services for three years. He said he didn't have an exact dollar amount in terms of how much the district spends on bussing homeless students, as it is rolled into the district's overall transportation budget.

Still, he said, although the district does get some federal funds to help offset transportation costs, it can become expensive if there’s more than one student in a family and the children are in different grade levels. The school district will have to send multiple buses to one out-of-district house every day, which can be expensive.

Sander said it's even harder on children who are homeless, many of whom remain silent and don’t ask for help for fear of being stigmatized.

‘Families in great need’

A report released in December shows 21,826 homeless students statewide in the 2009-2010 school year, a 30 percent increase in three years. That reporting period compares the numbers of homeless students reported in the 2006-2007 school year, before the recession began in December of 2007, to the most current full year, 2009-2010.

Once they’re identified, homeless students may need help other than transportation. Some need help with basics, such as clothing or tutoring. The rationale for keeping kids in their original school is that it helps their learning.

A small 2006 pilot study by the Washington State Department of Transportation found that while homeless kids typically had lower grades and Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores than non-homeless students, the grades and scores were better among those homeless students who got to stay in their original schools.

University Place tries to help its homeless students by connecting them with counselors. The community also helps by contributing to the Families Unlimited Network, which provides them with free backpacks and school supplies at the start of the school year.

The nonprofit group made a plea to the community earlier this year for help, despite tough economic times for nearly everyone.

One of the things the group tried to debunk is the “myth” that poverty doesn’t exist in University Place because of its relative affluence.

Principal Lance Goodpaster of Evergreen Primary, who made a cameo in F.U.N.’s pledge video to supporters, said educators see homelessness every day.

“We do have families in great need in UP,” he said. “I think it’s surprising to members of the community sometimes, but literally, we have students attending our schools—not just Evergreen, but all the schools—who are homeless, not knowing where they’re going to be each night or staying with friends or staying in a van or in a car.”

“So there’s just a need,” he added. “And unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the need’s going to go away anytime soon.”


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