While some students might find it a struggle to finish homework at night, other students are saddled with an additional dilemma— not having a stable home.
Through a new budgeting formula approved by the State Legislature last year that provides school districts in California greater flexibility for using certain state funds, the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) hopes to bring awareness and attention to the needs of its growing and often hidden homeless-student population.
Currently, more than 5,000 students in K-12th grade at LBUSD are homeless, meaning they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence,” according to James Suarez, homeless student liaison and assistant director of LBUSD’s Office of Equity, Access and Career and College Readiness, in an emailed statement.
The homeless-student population at LBUSD accounts for more than 6 percent of the district’s overall population of more 80,000 students.
“The homeless population has gradually risen in LBUSD,” Suarez said, adding that homeless students are of all ethnicities and parts of the City since the economic downturn hit all facets of society. “The downturn in the U.S. economy, especially hard-hitting in California, probably has had the most significant impact on Long Beach’s homeless population.”
According to a report released on Sept. 10 by the California Youth Project, a research and policy initiative on homeless students, and kidsdata.org, nearly 270,000 public-school students in California were homeless at some point in the 2012-2013 school year. This equates to about 4 percent of all California’s public-school students, double the national average. California accounted for a little more than one-fifth of all homeless public-school students in the U.S. that school year, according to the report.
This academic year, LBUSD referenced homeless students for the first time along with its annual budget, approved in June, as part of what’s called a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP). The plan is in response to a new funding method, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the State Legislature in 2013.
According to school officials, the formula provides a more “streamlined” school-finance system, giving schools greater flexibility to use state funding based on student needs.
Shortly after the State’s approval of the new formula, LBUSD began a “sweeping effort to engage the community in shaping its LCAP,” including multiple surveys and meetings, which are required under the new formula, school officials said.
The draft LCAP, according to school officials, spells out spending priorities and accountability measures for the next three years to make certain that resources are used wisely.
For LBUSD, identifying homeless students in the LCAP, even though these students are part of the low-income subgroup, was important to recognize that there are “significant differences for these youngsters in needs,” not only when it comes to academic achievement but in counseling with regard to social and emotional issues as well, Suarez said.
“By listing homeless students as a distinct category in the LCAP, not to diminish the other groups of needy students, I think, creates an awareness and attention,” he said.Â “In addition, tying homeless students to goals of the LCAP ensures accountability for high student achievement and intervention support.”
Suarez said homeless students are automatically eligible for Title I services (federal funding for students from low-income families) and free food services. In addition, LBUSD has won the State’s competitive McKinney-Vento grant as a supplement toÂ the school district’s Title I reservation for homeless education.Â
The McKinney-Vento laws ensure that homeless students maintain a “stable environment for the six or so hours a day at school even if the students’ home life does not offer the same stability,” he said. At the same time, however, Suarez said, the need for better social services and partnerships with social-service agencies is vital to addressing lack of adequate housing, which he said is the “source” of the issue.
“Homeless students are among the most vulnerable and needy students in schools,” he said.Â “They are also some of the most resilient.Â Providing a support system for the student and family is key.” Â
In all resources, including Title I, LCFF, and McKinney-Vento, the school district has centrally budgeted approximately $500,000, Suarez said.Â This includes a full-time social worker, full-time community worker, student transportation, dental care, summer programs and case management.
Two of the main services that LBUSD provides to homeless students are transportation and supplies, which include school uniforms, he said.
Transportation, Suarez said, is important since it “eliminates a barrier for many homeless students getting to school.”
He said one of the biggest signs that a child is homeless is absenteeism, including tardiness, adding that, once a child shows a pattern of being frequently late or absent from class, teachers should report this to a counselor to follow up with the family.
Although, in many cases, families are reluctant to report their situation because of “the pride factor,” giving this information helps the district to support the student and family with assistance, such as uniforms, school supplies, referrals and counseling, Suarez said.
“If students are in school and getting instruction, they can achieve,” he said.
Transportation also ensures the stability in keeping a child at one school even if the family is moving around, he said.
“Before the homeless education laws, homeless families who are very transient moved their child from school to school to school, thus creating a fragmented education for the children or, worse yet, a dropout situation,” Suarez said.Â “Current laws protect the students from moving school to school by requiring the [school] district to provide transportation to the school of origin if it is feasible. That means that even though the family is moving around the city, the student remains at the same school, creating a stable environment.”
He said all school districts in the country must designate a “homeless liaison,” which ensures that homeless students are receiving supportive services so that they can succeed in school while administering programs for homeless students and families.Â
Suarez said the “real work,” however, happens at LBUSD’s Mary McLeod Bethune Transition Center, which opened in 2006 at 2101 San Gabriel Ave. at the Villages at Cabrillo in west Long Beach.
He said the center provides a “one-stop place” for homeless families to receive services, including school enrollment help, school uniforms and supplies, basic needs, counseling, school intake and referrals to other agencies for housing assistance.Â
Bethune staff also work with other school sites to understand the needs of homeless students across the district while taking on case management, giving “front-line assistance where it is needed most,” Suarez said.
He said dedicated employees not only recognize the need for supporting homeless students but also take “decisive action on their behalf.” Â This commitment to providing a local presence in the area in which there is a confluence of homeless families makes the services to students and families “seamless,” Suarez said.Â
He points out, however, that the school district is “complementary” to the agencies that provide social services, adding that school funding doesn’t include “financial assistance at the site level” to augment interventions for homeless students.
“Our main duty is to ensure that the child receives a quality education,” Suarez said. “The basics are needed, and we do support the child with food services at school and uniforms.Â The root issue is lack of housing, which we can support through referrals to agencies so that families can receive housing assistance.Â Since the child is in school, this is the stable environment that is needed, if only for the six hours a day.”