The Payson Unified School District’s population of homeless students continues to grow — it now accounts for 15.5 percent of the district’s total population. Moreover, the district’s number of students eligible for free “and reduced lunch has climbed to an all-time high at 62 percent.
“I don’t care what technically has been said about the recession (being over),” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien. “The fact is that unemployment numbers are still high.”
The district has received an $80,000 federal grant to help pay for the costs of dealing with this burgeoning population. From 65 applicants, just 19 were selected. The district won the same grant last year, but only received $65,700.
“The success of our program last school year was undoubtedly a significant factor in being able to submit a very strong proposal,” said O’Brien.
Last year, the district hired a homeless advocate who worked with students to connect them to programs and assistance like food stamps, free lunch at school or an after-school program.
Blanche Oakland, who previously just worked with low-income families, has also taken on responsibilities related to helping the burgeoning homeless populations. Meanwhile, district secretary Susan Campbell has also worked overtime while writing grants and helping students.
Most of Payson’s 409 homeless youth live “doubled-up,” which means two or more families live together. One percent has no place to live at all. Last year, the district reported 365 homeless students.
Although a student might technically have a roof over his head while living doubled up with another family, district officials say living in crowded spaces with little privacy or quiet can be very stressful.
The district’s challenge is ensuring the continued academic success of displaced students.
Research shows that children living in poverty do worse in school, said O’Brien.
“It’s a challenge for us,” he added. “Not saying anything about whether a parent is a good parent.” However, a single mom working two jobs doesn’t have time to read her child a bedtime story. An unemployed dad doesn’t have money to buy books.
As the district’s poverty levels rise, the challenge will be how to care for these students’ basic needs — like clothes and shoes — while also helping them succeed scholastically.
Grant money helps buy school supplies, clothes, shoes and toiletries like shampoo and toothpaste for homeless students. It also pays fees for students who want to participate in sports, music and other after-school programs.
Research shows that homeless high school students have a hard time meeting graduation requirements and keeping up with their high school graduating class without intervention.
The district will use the grant to fund after-school tutoring, academic intersession and summer school. The high school will pilot a credit recovery project with grant money to help its students.
Other people have stepped up to help homeless families. People have donated money, goods and services. For example, hairdressers have volunteered their services. A group of local religious leaders has formed to try and serve the so-called unaccompanied youth — those living without parents.
Others have donated clothes and food. O’Brien urged people to support local efforts in helping homeless families.