Schools see growing number of homeless students - KAIT-Jonesboro, AR-News, weather, sports

Schools see growing number of homeless students

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JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) – A new task force will help develop a plan to reduce homelessness in Jonesboro, and some of their proposals will likely impact the growing number of homeless students.

Homelessness has affected more and more students not just locally, but nationally. During the 2011-12 school year, the National Center for Homeless Education reported that there were 1.2 million homeless students from preschool through high school nationwide. The center stated that that number represents not only a 10 percent increase over the previous school year but an all-time high as well.

The Jonesboro Public School District has seen an increase, too, and has worked hard to provide additional resources for those students so that they can better succeed.

"We have students that come in and what they go through before 8:00 when the bell rings every morning is something that most of us couldn't dream about," Leigh Anne Rainey said.

Rainey is assistant principal at Jonesboro High School but also works closely with a small, yet growing number of students classified as homeless.

"[Homelessness] is one of the most crippling factors that you can put on a teenager," Rainey said, "well, on any child at all, especially between the ages of 13 and 18, is to not have a stable home."

The high school currently has more than 1,000 students, and Rainey claims that only about one to two percent of them are homeless. That classification, however, is broad, she says.

"We identify many different levels of homelessness," Rainey explained.

The situations for all these students are different. Some do live in a car or on the streets, while others live in a home with multiple families or are 18 years old and live on their own. The common thread, though, is that the school deems them all ‘homeless' and tries to provide each with some help.

"The instability of their home life provides so many different emotional levels that there's absolutely no way we could expect those students to either excel or even achieve at all in a school situation," Rainey said, "if they're hungry or worried about where they're going to be sleeping that night."

To assist those students, the district provides a range of services, including a backpack program to discretely send kids home with extra food each week. The district also offers programs like free tutoring, mentoring as well as access to a clothing closet organized by the Junior Auxiliary.

"It is 100 percent confidential who we have identified [as homeless] in this school," Rainey said. "It's only accessible by counselors and principals so that the students themselves don't have any idea who they are. I think that's part of the beauty of why our system is working well here is because we are so strict about that confidentiality, especially in a teenager's life."

She says the district will keep offering these services because they have seen just how helpful they have been in the past.

"Some of our very best success stories have come out of some of the situations you never would have thought," Rainey said. "I get goose bumps talking about it, but to see them walk across that stage and know that they have a strong future based because somebody took the time to say you're important enough to me to take care of this situation and to help me, there's nothing more important.

"That's why we're here."

Experts have said the increase in homeless students may come from the sluggish economy, but also because there's better reporting now.

Rainey says Jonesboro has become better about quickly identifying at-risk students and connecting them with different services. She suggested that that response may have translated to rising numbers of homeless students that the district has seen during the past few years.

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