Schools Keep Support For Homeless Students Alive

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The Payson Unified School District has cobbled together enough money to keep its support program for homeless students operating through the end of the school year.

“Having someone there for these students connects them to the support they need,” said Superintendent Casey O’Brien, who reported the extension of the program to the board on Monday.

The combination of leftover grant money and community support will enable the district to keep paying the salary of a coordinator who makes sure that the district’s 400 students not living at home with a parent have both academic and social support.

The district suffers one of the highest rates of homeless students in the state, which includes children living with grandparents, other family members, friends, shelters, on the street, in campgrounds and elsewhere.

“I’m cautiously optimistic” that the district will cobble together additional support from the community to keep the program going, said O’Brien.

The district was stunned a month ago when it failed to qualify for an extension of the state grant that paid the $30,000 cost of the program last year.

The Payson school district’s homeless students account for more than 17 percent of the student body.

However, wealthy Valley districts like Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Kyrene with very low homeless student populations qualified for the extension of the grant this year while Payson didn’t.

Several community organizations have rallied to provide support for those students. On Monday, the school board accepted donations to support homeless students from Laura’s Small Café, Sandra Knapp, Phyllis Martin, Chuck Ybarrondo, Donna Lindstrom, Larry Brown, Bobbie Smith, Blanche Oakland, Walmart, Rock and Cody Newcomb, Terry Morris, Hubert Moran and Liz Norquist. Mountain Bible Church also recently donated $1,000.

Payson’s grant money has gone mostly to pay the salary of a district coordinator of homeless services.

She meets with students, parents, guardians, family members and classroom teachers to figure out what kinds of extra help the students need.

Sometimes, that involves finding a quiet, warm place for students to study, sometimes it involves extra tutoring and other academic help to keep them from falling behind.

The program also provides students with clothing, school supplies and other needs. Finally, the coordinator works closely with other community support groups — like food banks and Payson Helping Payson plus state programs that can help struggling families.

In addition, one local group has launched an effort to match up homeless students with families willing to take them in so they can finish school.

Kathie Manning, the district’s financial director, said the district had gotten permission to use leftover grant money to extend the existing homeless coordinator’s position.

In addition, the district got permission to devote to the program about $7,000 from another grant to the program for homeless students.

That money will get the district through June without having to reduce services.

Now, the district hopes to strike up a partnership with community groups to continue the program next year.

“We’re always getting donations from individuals,” said O’Brien.

For instance, he noted that Mountain Bible Church had just donated $1,000 to keep the program alive. “Some folks in the community are looking to see if they can organize a sustainable level of support.”

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