Lending a hand to homeless teens

Renton SD creates new avenue to graduation for teens in need

Renton’s homeless teens struggle to finish school at the same rate as other students. Among Lindbergh, Renton and Hazen High School, 2018 graduation rates for youth experiencing homelessness was 57 percent, compared to non-homeless students at 87 percent in the same schools. Nationwide, youth experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out, according to data from the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness.

Michele Starkey is the McKinney-Vento Act liaison for Renton School District. She works as a homeless youth education liaison to identify which students are experiencing homelessness and help those students get resources. She recently worked with Communities in Schools of Renton (CISR) to get more support and advocacy for Renton’s teens through a mobile case manager, a position that launched this fall.

“We know kids that are unstably housed see greater impacts on their grades, attendance, performance on state-based assessments and graduation rates,” Starkey said. “Our goal would be to narrow that gap so, regardless of the situation the students are in, they’re able to perform at the same rate as peers.”

This position focuses on homeless, unaccompanied minors in the four Renton high schools, as more of those youth fall in the high school age range. High school students who may need this help are identified through other school staff, the student qualifying for assistance under the McKinney-Vento Act, or the student self-identifying as experiencing homelessness.

In February, the Seattle Times published a column written by a Hazen High School student about realizing homelessness was a problem that her peers were struggling with, and questioning why it wasn’t talked about more. CISR Director Jaime Greene said she felt that story was able to bring the issue of homelessness in high schools to the forefront. She said the school district has been talking about other ways they can also support homeless students, and that, in general, more discussions are happening around the needs of teens experiencing homelessness.

“A lot of students might think: ‘Well, I’m homeless, I’m couch surfing, what are my rights?’ But, actually, they have a lot of rights and services they’re entitled to,” Greene said.

The mobile case manager does a needs assessment for each student and then tries to help them overcome those barriers by meeting each student weekly. The main goals are to increase on-time and five-year graduation rates for these students, and create post-graduation plans. Typically the student just needs an advocate to help them talk to teachers about their needs, but it can also help them enroll in health care, find a place to stay or help facilitate family communication and home visits, Greene said.

Starkey said since the case manager position began more students are realizing this resource is available and reaching out for help. She said that speaks volumes about the trusting relationship this case manager is providing. By the end of the semester, Starkey said they will know if attendance or coursework completion has improved for the kids they work with.

Greene estimated that the case manager will end up working with at least the amount of high school students identified as homeless minors in the 2018-19 school year, which was around 50. As defined by the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless means youth who lack a consistent and/or adequate residence at night.

Starkey said while not every high school has the same amount of students experiencing homelessness, this mobile position will allow for everyone to be supported.

The idea to add the position came up last summer, when Starkey saw a grant open up to better support homeless students. Starkey reached out to Greene to figure out what they could do to help these students, who weren’t getting the support they needed, Greene said. She reached out to Greene because CISR has a track-record of being able to help specific groups of students. They then pulled the mobile case manager position idea from what other CIS’s were doing in other parts of the country.

“When the grant opportunity came up, it was a way for us to support all of the high schools,” Starkey said.

The district did not receive the grant that year, but Greene was so excited about the position she wanted to make it happen anyways. Last year they raised funds to support the position and got it partially funded. Then the grant came up again this summer and the district got it.

Now the position will be fully funded. Greene said she would have figured the funds out anyways, because the position is so important. The grant funding will go to 80 percent of the position costs, and CISR will support the other 20 percent for at least the first year.

Starkey hopes that the Renton community will support positions like this going forward. The grant is only renewable for three years, but they want to make it a sustainable position. What it will come down to is people supporting CISR.

“Support for a student is so much more than a backpack, toothbrush or coat. Those are tangible things people like to give, which is wonderful. But it’s not to be estimated to the power of a strong, caring relationship in a person’s life,” Starkey said. “A caring adult in schools is a big part of students’ resilience.”

CISR has been with Renton since 1995, and also recently expanded to Tukwila. Outside supporting students experiencing homelessness, CISR supports 14 schools from elementary through high school. In those schools the organization focuses on students referred to them and help with out-of-class barriers.

More information on CISR and the mobile case manager is available at renton.ciswa.org.

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