No place to go

This is the second of four articles about homeless students in Jefferson County. Subsequent stories in the series “No place to go” will focus on Fort Atkinson and its Crossroads program.

WHITEWATER — The Whitewater Unified School District has seen a significant upsurge in homeless students in the past few years, with numbers almost tripling during that time.

The district is absolutely dedicated to evening out the playing field for those students so they enjoy the same opportunities as others do, said Lanora Heim, director of pupil services for the Whitewater schools. Heim shares the responsibility as district homeless liaison with a school social worker.

However, assisting these families does represent a substantial cost to districts. For example, busing one family from another district where they’ve found a temporary home can cost $15,000.

Heim said she would love to see more resources available regionally to assist this vulnerable population.

As defined by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, qualifying students include any youngsters served by a school district who lack a permanent address during the course of the year. This refers not only to people staying in shelters or living rough, but also to families or individuals sleeping on friends’ couches, living in a hotel temporarily, or doubling up with relatives.

Heim said that during the 2018-19 school year, the district recorded 72 students who experienced homelessness during at least a portion of the school year.

Many of those students still were in a “homeless situation” through the end of the school year, she said, while others had since secured housing.

Wrapped into that number, 14 of those 72 students were considered unaccompanied minors, defined as minors not living with a parent or guardian, but on their own.

For those students, the district serves “in loco parentis” when it comes to authorizing fieldtrips and participating in educational enrichment opportunities, assisting with higher education scholarship or financial aid applications, and so on.

The 2018-19 numbers were up slightly from the 2017-18 school year, in which the Whitewater schools recorded 67 homeless students, and up sharply from the 2016-17 school year, when the Whitewater schools had a total of 48 homeless students.

Looking back to the 2015-16 school year, the Whitewater schools recorded a significantly smaller number, with 31 homeless students.

“The numbers are on the rise,” Heim said.

The pupil services coordinator said that the Whitewater district does more than people know. It starts with the accommodations that are outlined in the McKinney-Vento Act, which defines what public school districts are required to do for homeless youth. However, the Whitewater schools go well beyond the bare requirements.

Heim said that the McKinney-Vento Act guides districts to waive school fees (including fees to participate in sports/activities and fieldtrips), to provide transportation to and from school (even if the student is temporarily living outside of the school district), and provide free breakfast and lunch.

In the interest of evening the playing field for all students, the Whitewater district goes above and beyond to assist homeless students so that they can come to school ready to learn.

Some of the extra efforts the district has taken on include assisting families in paying rent so they can stay in their homes, and helping with water and electric bills on a one-time basis through the district’s Family Emergency Fund, Heim said.

And, of course, the Whitewater schools help to connect families with local organizations that can provide them the support they need, including the local food pantry, Bethel House (an ecumenical mission helping to house homeless families and provide other needed services) and the Community Space (a gathering space in Whitewater through which people can share clothes, food, housewares and furniture, as well as skills and ideas) and various different county agencies.

“Additionally, we check in with the children at school on a regular basis and make visits with the families wherever they are located to determine if they have any immediate needs we can meet,” Heim said.

“Sometimes the needs are simple, like a backpack or food, while other times they need help with legal issues, medical situations and complicated family dynamics,” she said.

Sometimes the district steps in to assist families in getting a car repaired so they have reliable transportation, to negotiate with landlords, or to arrange for temporary hotel accommodations.

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