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K12 districts expand services for homeless students

Dallas ISD’s morning drop-in centers for homeless high school students provide necessities such as take-home food, hygiene products and a place to wash clothes. The program’s managers say they also strive to offer an equally important, if less tangible, resource: trust.

Homeless teens rarely tell anyone about their predicament because they’re afraid of “a multitude of things,” such as being turned over to foster care or reported to the police, says Mark Pierce, manager of the drop-in program.

Some gay and transgender students don’t want anyone to know they have been thrown out of their homes because of their lifestyles, he adds.

Establishing trust with these teens is one of the key reasons the district says it is essential for the centers to operate at high schools, rather than at other community organizations.

“You have to come a long way to gain that trust and if anybody is going to gain that trust, it should be the school system,” Pierce says. “If you can establish trust you can get them to continue and to graduate from high school. You can bring in counselors to help them resolve their situations.”

Eliminating obstacles

Students can visit the centers—which have opened at 24 Dallas ISD high schools since 2012—before school from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. The rooms are staffed by a community liaison. Pierce also brings in volunteer mentors and speakers who tell students about housing programs and other community services.

Students can see the liaison any time during the week if they need food, hygiene products, clothing or other supplies. Teens who have visited the centers have shown improved attendance, Pierce adds. “One of the primary objectives of drop-in centers is to eliminate obstacles.”

Elsewhere, Maine School Administrative District #60 is planning to create housing for teens who are homeless, which can also mean staying with friends or sleeping on someone’s couch.

Building a beacon

The Maine district has formed its own nonprofit with plans to purchase a home where teens can stay under supervision. It’s a program that can be replicated in the other U.S. districts trying to improve the lives of homeless students, Assistant Superintendent Susan Austin says.

“We chose that house to be a beacon for us,” she says. “We want to highlight the reality in our districts that there are kids living in unstable situations.”

The house would serve about a dozen students a year. Teachers would likely make referrals as they are most likely to be the first educator to discover a student’s ordeal, Austin says.

The district already operates a school-based health clinic and sends backpacks of food home with students in need.

“We’ve been able to provide everything except for a stable living situation,” Austin says. “If we can’t give them that, then all those other things don’t make the difference that needs to be made for these kids to succeed.”