Addressing the needs
As the number of homeless students in Tennessee has grown over the years, officials in Sevier County Schools have taken measures to reach out to homeless students in the area and make sure they’re receiving an equal education.
According to a state comptroller report, the number of homeless students in Tennessee grew from 6,565 in the 2006-’07 academic year to 11,458 in the 2009-’10 academic year, a 74-percent increase, well above the national 38-percent increase during the same time span.
Director of Curriculum and Instruction Debra Cline said the Sevier County system has seen an increase in the number of students living in transitional housing following the economy’s years of recession.
“There are different definitions of ‘homelessness,’ but the number of children in transitional housing has increased over the last three years — a little every year,” Cline said.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines “homeless children and youth” as individuals who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” It includes children sharing a house due to economic hardship or loss of housing; children living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, camp grounds, emergency or transitional shelters, cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations; and children awaiting foster care placement.
That act was amended in 2001 to provide more public education protection for homeless children, and local schools have followed suit.
Harriet Berrier, principal of Sevierville Primary School (SPS), explained some of the programs SPS and other area schools are implementing to address the needs of homeless students.
“We have a program through Rack Room where we’re able to get shoes if we need them,” Berrier said. “We just try to get everything they need and help them any way we can.”
Cline talked about another program used locally and across the U.S. — the BackPack Program.
“Many of our schools are doing backpack programs where if the child has certain needs over the weekend, community agencies donate nutritious items to let kids take home over the weekend,” Cline said.
Aside from these programs, Cline emphasized awareness as a major way of addressing these issues. She said the schools make an extra effort to communicate with parents to see if their school can help in any way, and the schools get the teachers involved, too.
“We have some general information that we distribute to teachers that helps them be aware of things that might lead them to refer a child for additional help,” Cline said.
Help doesn’t always come in the form of extra school supplies or clothing. Cline and Berrier both acknowledged the positive emotional effects schools can provide homeless students.
“Our concern at the school system is that the students’ social, emotional and academic needs are taken care of as much as possible, and we want to make sure that we give extra care to those children in a transitional circumstance,” Cline said.
“We help all our kids no matter what their situation,” Berrier said. “It gives them a feeling of stability here. They feel safe and loved at school, not that their parents aren’t trying. It’s just sometimes circumstances are beyond their control.”