The School District of Fort Atkinson, like every other public school district in the state, is required to have a program in place to assist homeless youth attending the local schools.
Supported by state and federal funding and guided by state regulations, the aim of the program is to make sure students’ housing status doesn’t pose a barrier to their learning, said Lisa Hollenberger, director of pupil services for the School District of Fort Atkinson and homeless liaison for the district.
“These students would qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Hollenberger said. “We provide transitional help and waive additional fees that might otherwise keep them from fully participating in school activities.”
The school district is tasked with making sure every student has the opportunity to achieve his or her potential. For homeless students, state regulations provide for an extra layer of accountability on the part of districts to make sure this vulnerable population has its needs met.
“The level of accountability has increased in the three years I have been in this position,” Hollenberger noted.
The district must make an effort to identify students who might fit into this category. In the greater Jefferson County area, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the stereotypical image of someone homeless who is “sleeping on the streets.”
Most are in some type of housing, but they lack an address of their own. They might have moved in with a family member or they might be staying with a succession of friends. They’re in unstable situations and tend to move around as necessary.
Just reaching students who might be moving from place to place, district to district, on an unpredictable basis poses its own challenges.
Hollenberger said that the Fort Atkinson district tries to make sure that it informs families and students of their educational rights, posting that information in accessible spots throughout the community, such as the Jefferson County Human Services Department offices, the local library, churches, community centers and laundromats.
In the past three years, Hollenberger said, the Fort Atkinson district has seen a slight increase in students qualifying as homeless under the state Department of Public Instruction’s definition.
These students still make up a very small percentage of the district’s overall student population of 2,900, Hollenberger said, with perhaps 1 percent to 1.5 percent of students meeting that definition.
She said that a couple of years ago, the district recorded 26 students fitting into this category. Last year, the number went up a bit, but Hollenberger attributed the bump in numbers to an extended outreach effort rather than a significant change in the population.
“It may be that the identification process is better,” Hollenberger said. “We added Pupil Services staff and that became more of a focus.”
She noted that the district tends to see more students identified at the younger ages.
“Our numbers are probably not as representative of older youth, because they don’t self-report,” she said.
Hollenberger said that the Fort Atkinson schools try to catch qualifying students during the registration process, but there are inherent challenges to finding people with this level of need — and this level of instability in their lives.
Once a student has been identified as qualifying, a number of resources become available to him or her.
On top of the free and reduced lunch program and fee waivers, there are numerous other resources at the Fort Atkinson schools, most of them supported through staff and community donations.
Both the high school and middle school have community clothes closets where students in need can pick up not only clothing, but also other essential items such as deodorant and shampoo.
In terms of school supplies, such as backpacks and notebooks, the district is the beneficiary of a number of community school supply drives at the start of every school year. Even when students enter midway through the year, there are some supplies set aside so that they can get the items they need for classes.
“Our standard practice is if students aren’t able to gain access to something they need to finish a class (even something pricey like a graphing calculator), we can help them get it,” Hollenberger said.
Money for such items can be found in the building budgets, through grant funding or through community resources, she said.
In addition, the district connects with various area charities, agencies and other resources to make sure all students, K-12, have access to winter wear that they need to stay warm and safe during the cold season.
Recently, Fort Family Connections provided a pillar grant, through the United Way of Jefferson and North Walworth Counties, intended to remove barriers to students being able to participate in extended activities such as fieldtrips or athletics.
In terms of training, Fort Atkinson school staffers are trained to look out for students who might be experiencing housing insecurity.
“We train staff to recognize some key identifiers, and we do provide a state-driven list of conversation starters which can help identify students,” Hollenberger said.
As with addressing any human need, relationship building is key.
Hollenberger said that a recent initiative that has helped build stronger relationships between students and their classroom teachers is the “classroom community time” now built right into the schedule.
Classroom community time is a specified time set aside for students to interact with their classroom teachers on the elementary level or homeroom teacher/case manager on the middle and high school level.
This 15 to 20 minutes is set aside every day for educators to connect directly with students. They might plan an activity or foster a conversation based on student needs.
It has been a boon for students of all backgrounds and levels of need, Hollenberger said.
“This has been a big factor in being able to understand the needs of all students, especially those dealing with displacement or homelessness,” Hollenberger said.