Each year, hundreds of local students have to move because their families can’t afford a house of their own, and they face the stress of switching schools along with the fear of not knowing where they’ll be living next.
Schools track the number of students who live in a home with more than one family. And each year, these students make up most of the homeless students in the county. Last year, 75 percent of the 467 homeless students in Johnson County lived in a home with more than one family.
Often, they have found places to stay with friends or family members after suffering financial blows, but their situation is unstable, and many will end up moving one or more times during a school year, school officials say.
This means having to change schools and relearn everything from class schedules to different course material. Teachers, administrators and counselors try to give the students extra help, a quiet place to study or support they may need, such as extensions on homework. But their education is impacted by their unstable housing situation because students in a new school might be learning something completely different, officials say.
In Greenwood, the number of students in homes that combine families has been increasing for years. In 2011, there were 73 homeless students. By last year, that number had gone up to 144, and students living in a home with another family made up 66 percent of those.
Some of these students may be in temporary situations, but others face more permanent financial difficulties in their family lives. They might find a friend willing to let them stay for a few weeks but then have to move on and find another friend or family member willing to help. This instability forces the family to move a lot and the children to change schools.
School administrators make sure that teachers and counselors are informed about students’ home situations so they can look out for any ways they might be struggling in class, Greenwood curriculum director Rick Ahlgrim said.
“Being homeless is a disruptive experience,” he said. “That applies to students as well as parents and families. Anything in a child’s life that’s disruptive tends to affect academic achievement and ability.”
Students who live in a home with multiple families often find it hard to get a quiet place to themselves where they can sit and study, Ahlgrim said. Their basic needs like shelter are taken care of, but they might also need more, such as extra time alone after school, to succeed academically. A teacher may let them come in early or stay late to do work, give them an extra study period or modify homework assignments for them, he said. The most important factor is that the teacher be informed of the situation so they can be flexible in how they help the student, he said.
Schools also provide students with help with school supplies, clothing and school activities.
Donations earmarked for students facing financial difficulties at Clark-Pleasant allow them to participate in sports and other clubs, assistant superintendent John Schilawski said. Many of the students miss out on the fun parts of school because they can’t afford to pay for fees, uniforms or trips. The donations help cover those costs so they can join any activity they choose, he said.
“Whether they’re in a financial situation or just moving, that’s a trying thing for most kids,” Schilawski said. “Since their home lives are in turmoil, we try as hard as we can to stabilize the school environment for them.”
Clark-Pleasant guidance counselors will meet with students who may need a relationship with an adult in order to feel stable and secure. And peer helpers could be asked to assist them in getting around the school and finding classes.
But adjusting, especially to multiple moves, is difficult for students, Ahlgrim said.
“There aren’t a lot of kids who can take a couple of moves a year and maintain traction in their academic progress,” he said. “As we study students who struggle, uneven instruction and high mobility, those are most likely to struggle. That’s a very big academic hurdle to clear.”
Students who move within the county have an easier time adjusting to classes because curriculum is kept consistent in the area, Schilawski said. But kids who come from farther away might need extra tutoring to catch up with where their new classes are.
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless students who move to a nearby school district have the right to continue to attend their original school. But many parents don’t know about that right, and, as a result, many students end up switching schools, Schilawski said.
Guidance counselors will try to enroll students in classes most consistent with their previous education, and teachers try to make sure the students are updated on the coursework. They’ll tutor them privately or adjust assignments for them as needed, Ahlgrim said.
But when a student has to move out of the district because of the family’s financial problems, there’s nothing a teacher can do, he said.
“I’ve had teachers and principals express a desire to keep children who are struggling and who require a big investment of time and attention,” he said. “They try every way they can to keep them in the building rather than have them leave.”