By the end of this school year, there were 244 children in the Douglas County School District considered to be homeless, according to Director of Assessments and Grants Brian Frazier.
That means there were 244 children who, when the school day was over, lived outside the traditional definition of a home. Approximately 216 were "doubled up," living in another home temporarily, 16 were living in some sort of shelter, nine were living in a motel, and three were designated "unsheltered," Frazier reported.
To put the situation in perspective, he provided some staggering contrasts. There were 33 students identified as homeless or "students in transition" in the 2007-08 school year. That number jumped to 87 by the spring of 2009, then soared to 228 students by the spring of 2010, further peaked at 294 in 2011, and settled at 244 this year. The latest figure includes 157 students in elementary schools and 87 students in secondary schools.
"Douglas County is not immune to the effects of the economic downturn and the negative effects on our families as witnessed by our high unemployment numbers and the closing of businesses within the Valley," Frazier said. "There is a fine line between families who are living at or below the poverty level and those who are homeless. Unfortunately, we have families who bounce back and forth across that line on a regular basis."
Homelessness is a new problem in the district. Never before has it reached such proportions in the student body. In response, both the district and the county have been working together to seal the proverbial cracks in the system.
On July 10, school board members approved changes to board policy and administrative regulations that better reflect the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
According to Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the legislation is similar to Title I or federal transportation funding in that "the law applies because states accept the funding."
In 2010, McKinney-Vento funding became available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Douglas County School District received $14,760 that year, and has since secured more than $146,000 in program funding.
"We use the funds to provide homeless students with school supplies and materials, academic intervention for students below grade level, transportation to school of origin, and training for our site liaisons," Frazier said.
The money, however, must be used in accordance with the law, as reflected in the board's recent policy changes.
Chief among the federal mandates is that schools must enroll homeless children regardless of documentation. If birth certificates, immunization records, transcripts or permanent addresses are not available, the district must assist students in obtaining the records, or, in some cases, provide the services themselves, such as immunization shots.
Other mandates include free transportation to and from school, free or reduced meals when available, waivers for activity fees, and allowing affected students to stay in their original school despite any boundary changes.
"While our homeless population is different at each site," Frazier said, "the individuals throughout the district are attuned to changes in students' living situations and have perhaps personal experience with a homeless family member or relative over the last few years, which makes the concern and understanding all the more close to home."
Frazier specifically credited district department heads for facilitating transportation, meals, and hygiene packs - often backed by community donations. He also said school counselors, registrars and administrators are the ones on the ground tracking homeless students.
"As you can see there are many hands that are needed and involved in this effort," he said.
Of the 244 homeless students identified this year, 226 needed food, 36 needed help with fees, and 114 received additional school supplies beyond backpacks, pencils, pens and paper, Frazier said. Thirty-three students were transported to their school of origin within Douglas County, and six were transported to their school of origin outside of Douglas County, namely Carson City.
The McKinney-Vento Act further requires that individual school districts appoint a homeless liaison to work with other agencies, including Douglas County Social Services and the Boys and Girls Club of Western Nevada. Frazier is that liaison. He said the partnership enables the district to refer students and families to social services for help with emergency shelter, food vouchers, clothing vouchers, housing and other resources.
"Douglas County Social Services also refers parents to us from their intake process. Both types of referrals occur with parent permission," he said. "Our primary responsibility is to ensure that all students receive an appropriate education. We want to ensure that our homeless students have the ability to participate or take advantage of the variety of services and supports we offer just like any other student."
Frazier said he's heartened by the school board's proactive response to the crisis.
"Our board is an accurate reflection of the caring and concern that the folks in Carson Valley have for one another. I have felt this same concern when speaking with staff members at the schools, offices, and departments throughout the school district," he said. "We will continue to review our procedures, train our staff, and refine our processes to ensure that we provide appropriate assistance to our students."