Seeking Stability

As Tucson students return to school, thousands live without a typical home

Tens of thousands of children are making their way back to schools across Tucson. Many of these students, though, don't have a typical home to go to after the school day ends.

These are among the children covered by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Under its provisions, public schools, including charters, must offer assistance to students who do not have a fixed, regular and adequate residence.

This definition includes both children being placed in foster homes and those residing where more than one family shares a dwelling unit. It also covers children living on the street and those in homeless shelters.

"Your heart breaks for the kids," reflects Pam Fine, director of school community services for the Tucson Unified School District. She is also the district's required liaison for implementing the provisions of the legislation.

"Some names, you see year after year, and frequently, they are going in and out of shelters," Fine says.

According to statistics supplied by the Arizona Department of Education, almost 2,800 children in six of Tucson's largest school districts were considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act during the last school year.

Half of these students, or 1,399 of them, attended TUSD schools. While the number of these children in the city's largest school district has grown substantially over the last three years, it has remained fairly constant in most other local districts.

"We tell the parents that whatever is happening in the home, we want the situation to remain stable at school," Fine says.

To accomplish that, the district tries to keep the child in the same school regardless of where they might have moved.

"We see a definite benefit in keeping the student at the same school, and the district has an obligation to transport them there," Fine says.

That transportation, which was utilized by almost 400 students during the past school year, requires the district to contract with outside providers. These companies then must transport a child from his or her new place of residence anywhere in metropolitan Tucson to their school.

In addition to transportation, TUSD and other public schools also supply free meals, clothing, medical attention and counseling for these children. Almost all of the McKinney-Vento students in TUSD take advantage of the meals, while 60 percent utilize its clothing bank; 19 percent receive school supplies; and 15 percent receive school uniforms.

The McKinney-Vento Act also requires school districts to enroll homeless students immediately, even if they don't have a birth certificate or proof of immunizations.

"There was a 7-year-old who hadn't been to school in months," Fine recalls, "and her mother said she had lost her documents. So my mission was to track down those records."

Fine points out that once a student such as this 7-year-old is enrolled, the provisions of the law cover them for the remainder of the school year.

Despite all the services available, Fine says that because of the difficulties these kids face elsewhere, a large percentage of them have a tough time in school.

"Many of these children perform below grade level," she says, "but if they stay in one school, we see better progress. ... Keeping the child stable in school means surmounting barriers to that child's success."

Funding to administer the McKinney-Vento Act comes primarily from the federal government. TUSD uses about $110,000 in federal funds to help pay for its program.

Other money is awarded through the Arizona Department of Education. During the last school year, the state agency received more than $2.5 million in requests for assistance from districts, but had only $921,000 to spend.

"We have to share the wealth," Fine says, "because there's not a lot of wealth out there."

Figures provided by TUSD show that 785 McKinney-Vento students were residing in a living arrangement with more than one family during the last school year. Another 587 came from foster care, group homes or shelters.

These students were evenly divided across all grade levels, except the numbers for high school juniors and seniors tapered off somewhat.

That age group is among the populations which can take advantage of Youth on Their Own (YOTO), a Tucson-based organization now entering its 23rd year of service.

Assisting eighth- through 12th-graders, YOTO offers a monthly stipend of $125 along with bus passes, special-needs funds and referrals to social and medical agencies.

These services are provided by YOTO to children "who, through no fault of their own, lack a stable home and a parent or long-term legal guardian physically involved in their lives." This does not include children living in foster-care homes.

"The student must attend a public school, maintain a C average and have regular attendance," explains Gina Babunovic, communications and development director for YOTO.

Last school year, Babunovic says, YOTO assisted between 550 and 620 students. She adds that YOTO tries hard not to duplicate the services provided by school districts under the McKinney-Vento Act.

"When they are in the program," Babunovic says of the grades of YOTO students, "it's like night and day. They know somebody believes in them."

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