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Schools facing rise in homeless students

Schools serving homeless children are seeing an increase in enrollment, straining their ability to serve the most vulnerable students.

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Jarret Sharp, principal of Children First Academy, Phoenix Campus, part of a network of charter schools in that state, said enrollment in his K-8 school has increased by 12 percent to 18 percent in the past three years. Because the homeless student population is transient, the school’s average enrollment fluctuates between 280 and 320 students, its maximum allowed capacity.

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During the 2009-2010 academic year, the school’s waiting list had about 12 students. As of this month, it had grown to 60 students, Mr. Sharp said.

Mr. Sharp estimates that about 60 percent of his students are native Arizona residents, while the remaining 40 percent hail from out-of-state, particularly from Midwestern states hit hard by the recession, including Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

He says many of the families who enroll their children have lost their support infrastructure—relatives and friends who could assist them with temporary housing. According to survey findings compiled by the National Coalition for the Homeless, living with family and friends is the most common living situation for people affected by homelessness, followed by emergency shelters, and hotels and motels.

At Monarch School, Ms. Fuentes is seeing changes in the demographic the school serves.

Many families are experiencing homelessness or housing instability for the first time in their lives.

“We’re seeing more families who lost their homes to foreclosure. Previously, that had not been our population,” Ms. Fuentes said.

Findings from “Foreclosure to Homelessness: The Forgotten Victims of the Subprime Crisis,” the June 2009 report [PDF] of survey findings released by the National Coalition for the Homeless, found that an average of 10 percent of the social-service providers they polled said their clients became homeless as a result of foreclosure.

Institutions like Monarch School and Children First Academy are uncommon. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a 1987 law designed to help homeless students continue their education, discourages segregating homeless students, but it exempts schools in four counties from this rule: San Joaquin, Orange and San Diego counties in California and Maricopa County in Arizona. A subsequent reauthorization of the law expanded on those provisions.

A Student’s Perspective

Jessica Valenzuela, 18, enrolled in the Monarch School last fall after her father’s job offer fell through at the last minute.

“When we were in Arizona, we were feeding the homeless. All of a sudden, it just twisted on us,” said Ms. Valenzuela, who has since lived in a car with her family, and later, in a shelter.

Through an organization called Dreams for Change, which offers social services for San Diego’s homeless population, Ms. Valenzuela received a referral to attend the Monarch School. She said the school has helped her tremendously through its “Shopping Day” services, through which she and other students receive free clothes, shoes, and toiletries.

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