By Aaron Blevins, 9/29/2011
16,000 LAUSD Pupils are Considered to be Transient
More than 16,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District have been deemed homeless or transient for the 2011-2012 school year, according to district officials.
These students must manage social problems as they solve math problems or write English essays, sometimes without the proper supplies to do so. Nationally, statistics suggests that approximately 25 percent will drop out.
In hopes of ending the cycle of poverty, the district’s Homeless Education Program links these students and families with the resources they need to keep the children in school.
“We can provide a lot of resources to help them, but if they’re not at school, it doesn’t matter,” said Melissa Schoonmaker, the district’s pupil services and attendance coordinator.
In her sixth year in the position, Schoonmaker said the district has seven counselors who work with eligible students and families to ensure that education is a top priority. Four do “macro work”, coordinating with 200 schools apiece, while the remaining counselors target schools with high homeless populations or focus on specialized populations, she said.
“It’s a very transient population,” Schoonmaker said. “If they have to move around a lot, we want to connect them with the things they need.”
Items can include school supplies, clothing, transportation, medical and dental care, mental health assistance, childcare and anything else the family may need. Though some of those resources do not directly pertain to education, they can improve student performance, Schoonmaker said.
“It all relates back to the educational piece,” she said.
With such a large demographic to cover, counselors rely on teachers, administrators and parent liaisons to help, Schoonmaker said. Community partners are also key. Last week, Comerica Bank donated 45,000 items, including hygiene products and backpacks, to the district for homeless students. The donations were the result of a supply drive the bank had at its 31 area branches.
“How can these kids have hope for a better life … if we don’t send them to school?” Comerica senior vice president Sagra Cabrera said. “We’re very pleased we’re doing this and are able to help.”
Monica Garcia, the district’s board president, expressed her gratitude for the donations, saying such philanthropic endeavors help the district combat the “extreme reality” some students are forced to face.
“We need to celebrate when our community partners step up to help our students,” Garcia said, adding that 77 percent of district students are on the free or reduced lunch program. “We have a lot of students in need. We know the need is drastic.”
During that ceremony, Schoonmaker told the story of a second-grade girl who had received a donated backpack. The eight year old thanked Schoonmaker and said, “Can I give you a hug? This is the best day ever.”
As the Homeless Education Program, which was created in 1988, continues to evolve, more students are being identified as “at-risk”. Schoonmaker said the district identified 8,800 students in her first year, compared to nearly twice that in 2011-2012. The district uses a parent questionnaire to assemble lists of students in need.
“The message is getting out there that our program is here and it helps,” she said. “I think it’s improved immensely.”
Schoonmaker said a vast majority of the parents have a lot of pride, so the district must be cautious in keeping their information confidential. However, some have been affected by lost jobs or foreclosure and may be living with relatives, friends or in a shelter, she said. It can be heartbreaking.
“The kids didn’t ask for it,” Schoonmaker said. “It’s just what life has provided right now. I’m glad we can be there to help … but I hear horrible stories.”
She referenced a student whose father, the breadwinner in the family, was deported. With little to no income, the mother was forced to sleep in a park, wrapping herself and her child in her sweater in fear that someone would attempt to take the child. The district, though, was able to get the family transitional housing, Schoonmaker said.
“They transitioned through the issue and got stabilized,” she said. “I can’t even imagine it as a parent. Our families have seen horrible things. It’s just a very sad situation.”
Schoonmaker said the district has roughly 150 community partners that supply donations or help link at-risk students and families with resources. But the program could always use more help.
“We love, love, love donations,” Schoonmaker said.
For information or to donate, call (213)765-2880.