By Heather Mullinix
Cumberland County Schools not only offer a quality education to students, but staff also work to help make sure homeless students have their unique needs addressed so that they can be more successful in their academic endeavors.
Lisa Phillips, homeless liaison, works to identify homeless students and connect them to local agencies that can assist in their unique situations.
"Our primary goal with our homeless program is to promote services that can improve students' academic success and school attendance," Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle wrote in a memo to members of the Cumberland County Board of Education. The memo followed a story aired on a Knoxville news program that reported Cumberland County had 696 students that were classified as homeless during the 2010-'11 year.
The number comes from a Tennessee Comptroller report, "Homeless Students in Tennessee Public Schools," and looks at the compliance of school systems with the McKinney-Vento Act. That requires school systems to report the number of homeless students to the state each year.
VanWinkle noted the act classifies students as homeless if they are living in a shelter, including transitional housing while awaiting foster care, living with another family, living unsheltered or in substandard housing and living in transient housing, such as hotels or motels. The law defines homelessness as "individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence."
In the 2010-'11 school year, Cumberland County reported 26 students were living in a shelter, which includes transitional housing while awaiting placement through the foster care program. Two students were living unsheltered and 12 were living in hotels or motels. The greatest number of students in the report, 532, were living doubled-up with another family.
The homeless count for the 2011-'12 school year was 354 students.
The report found the number of homeless students nationwide grew 38 percent from the 2006-'07 school year. Tennessee's increase was much higher during that same time span, jumping 74 percent. This is particularly troubling because, nationally, fewer than 25 percent of homeless students graduate from high school. The National Center on Family Homelessness found children who are homeless are four times more likely to show delayed development than their housed counterparts, twice as likely to have learning disabilities and have three times the emotional and behavioral problems.
Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, states that accept funding through the act must require all school districts to:
•appoint a local homeless education coordinator;
•admit homeless students to school immediately, even if students are unable to provide documents typically required for enrollment;
•keep homeless students in the schools they originally attended when they were housed, to the extent possible; and
•provide transportation to help homeless students remain in their original schools.
In previous years, Cumberland County has been awarded a federal homeless grant for about $34,000; however, no grant funds were awarded for 2011-'13. The school system does receive $4,000 through federal Title I funds to help with school supply and health needs of homeless students.
"In an attempt to meet the needs of Cumberland County students that have been identified as homeless, we place great emphasis upon the utilization of all resources available within the community," VanWinkle wrote.
The school system collaborates with local organizations that includes the Bread of Life Mission, Avalon Center, Plateau Pregnancy Center, Cumberland Good Samaritans, Teens Against Drugs Center, Crossville Housing Authority and the House of Hope. Phillips contacts families to determine needs and provide information, guidance and referrals to appropriate agencies. Phillips has also organized a community coalition that meets quarterly to address homeless issues in the community.
Questions were raised about the accuracy of the report, especially since Cumberland County's number of homeless students that year were far above other area counties, including Putnam County with 25 students and Fentress County with 4. Davidson County had 2,049 homeless students, Hamilton County counted 1,603, Memphis City school district reported 3,193, and Rutherford County had 767. Those were the only school systems reporting higher numbers than Cumberland County.
The Tennessee Comptroller has also questioned the report, noting several surrounding states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana have identified significantly higher numbers of homeless students, and some districts in Tennessee in areas with high unemployment and/or high foreclosure rates identified no homeless students at all.
"The increase in homeless students may be attributable to job losses and other difficulties related to the economy that have affected families, but they may also be the result of some school districts' improved efforts to identify homeless students," states a press release from the Comptroller's office.
VanWinkle noted the accuracy of reports filed by counties was not monitored, and there is no incentive or additional funding provided to counties with higher numbers of homeless students.
"However, we feel an accurate account is essential for our students," VanWinkle wrote. "Our homeless liaison, along with guidance counselors, teachers, nutrition staff and administration understand the importance of identifying those students that need assistance and strive to meet the needs of the children as well as their families."