Schools see growing number of homeless students

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

Homelessness has affected more and more students not justlocally, but nationally. During the 2011-12 school year, the National Centerfor Homeless Education reported that there were 1.2 million homeless studentsfrom preschool through high school nationwide. The center stated that thatnumber represents not only a 10 percent increase over the previous school yearbut 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 sothat they can better succeed.

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

Rainey is assistant principal at Jonesboro High School butalso works closely with a small, yet growing number of students classified ashomeless.

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

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

"We identify many different levels of homelessness," Raineyexplained.

The situations for all these students are different. Some dolive in a car or on the streets, while others live in a home with multiplefamilies 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 withsome help.

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

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

"It is 100 percent confidential who we have identified [ashomeless] in this school," Rainey said. "It's only accessible by counselors andprincipals so that the students themselves don't have any idea who they are. Ithink that's part of the beauty of why our system is working well here isbecause we are so strict about that confidentiality, especially in a teenager'slife."

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

"Some of our very best success stories have come out of someof the situations you never would have thought," Rainey said. "I get goosebumps talking about it, but to see them walk across that stage and know thatthey have a strong future based because somebody took the time to say you'reimportant enough to me to take care of this situation and to help me, there'snothing more important.

"That's why we're here."

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

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

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