Homeless student aid

Making ends meet is a challenge in some area households, and school districts have assistance in place for families and students who are living below the poverty line or are in a transitional living situation.

“As a community, [poverty] is a topic that is here and that is happening,” said Anabel Ortiz-Chavolla, Ontario School District’s federal programs and school improvement director. “We need to increase awareness.”

School districts in both Oregon and Idaho use the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to determine who fits into a transitional living situation, or homeless category. The act, created by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, outlines the criteria for qualification and federal money for those in need of assistance.

“If students are couch surfing, or if the family is in a hotel and they are struggling to make ends meet, they’re in this category,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “We are supposed to categorize them under doubled up, hotel, shelter or unsheltered.”

Students who fall into the district’s doubled up category are living with more than one family in a house. Many times children of migratory families qualify as well.

“Students in a campground or living in their car have a lot of challenges associated with being ready to learn, so as a school system, our job is to provide as much as we can so students can succeed,” Ortiz-Chavolla said.

Ontario School District, as of the first week in December, has 178 students who fit into the category the district calls Families in Transition.

Numbers fluctuate throughout the year. Last year, the district ended the school year with 288 students in the Families in Transition Program.

Nyssa School District currently has 46 students who qualify under the McKinney-Vento criteria. Vale has 21 students who fit into the category.

Ramona Lee, federal programs director for Weiser School District, said students are affected differently by their unique situations. Weiser has 38 students who meet the criteria to be in a transitional or homeless category.

“Whenever families are living in a temporary or uncertain living situation, when they don’t have the security of where they are going to go home at night, that can affect them,” Lee said.

Weiser and Ontario, as well as many other area school districts, have assistance for enrollment for those students who don’t have the correct documents due to loss in a move or other factors.

“They have very specific rights,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “They have the right to enroll right away in school, because we need them to be in a safe environment while we work with the family to have a stable place.”

Another right that those families in transition can receive, Ortiz-Chavolla and Lee said, is the ability to continue at their school of origin.

“We work with the other districts to determine if it is best for students to stay in their school of origin,” Lee said. “We coordinate transportation so students don’t lose their credits or stay where they are doing well.”

Another important piece for school districts is creating awareness for teachers who have children from families in transition in their classrooms. Many of the children in these living situations frequently change schools, which is only one of the many factors that can influence their performance in the classroom.

“We try to make sure that the teachers understand if kids are doubled up in a house, there might not be a place for kids to do homework,” Lee explained. “They might be sharing beds or sleeping on the floor. We try to be aware of these things and not penalize those kids.”

New Plymouth Elementary School, which has 39 students in a transitional living category, provides opportunities for students to catch up on homework in a program the school calls the Sunup Studiers. It opens with the school at 7:30 a.m., and students have the opportunity to hit the books during the lunch hour as well.

“It’s a place to do their homework,” said Phyllis Nichols, counselor at New Plymouth Elementary School. “So we have allotted some extra study time at school for kids that can’t get homework done at home.”

Gina White, homeless lesion for Fruitland School District, who has a population of 30 students that fit into the homeless category, said a transient life affects students in a variety of ways. She explained every time a students switches schools, “eduction is disrupted” while the student adjusts to new teachers and friends.

“When our students become homeless, not only is it stressful not to know what’s happening the next day, but it’s stressful being in a new school,” Ortiz-Chavolla said. “So it’s a double stress for them.”

Many area school districts have before- or after-school programs that provide opportunities for children to continue learning in a safe, inspiring atmosphere. Weiser School District has the 21st Century After School Program, which runs until 6 p.m. on school days. Ontario School District has the OMS SUCCESS after-school program, which stands for Students Utilizing a Caring Community to Ensure School Success.

Huntington School District, which as two students who fit into the category currently, usually goes through the Malheur ESD in Vale for assistance and relies on community donations for school supplies and the local food bank for extra food support.

“That’s the nice thing about a small community,” Scott Bullock, superintendent at Huntington School District said. “We collect things from the community.”

Adrian has 29 students that fit into the Mckinney-Vento criteria.

School districts acknowledge that, although they provide as much assistance to those in need as they can, their primary objective is education, no matter what category a student falls into.

“Our goal, at the end of the day, is that they stay and graduate from high school so they can be prepared for whatever,” Ortiz-Chavolla said.

Published in the Argus Observer January 4, 2015.   This is the first of a series. 

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