Faced with a stunning increase in impoverished students, Payson Unified School District last week learned it lost a vital, $80,000 grant to keep homeless students from failing in school.
In the only glint of hope in a cascade of bad news, the Rim County Optimist Club and the Payson Senior Center staged a fashion show this weekend to raise money to benefit homeless students. More than 150 people raised more than $2,000.
“It was a wonderful event,” said Susan Campbell, the district’s homeless services coordinator. “People were stunned at our numbers. We’re very grateful to this community. But this grant was just absolutely important to us.”
A staggering 20-percent of the district’s students qualify as homeless, which means they have unstable, inadequate living conditions. In about 80 percent of those cases, their families are living doubled up with friends and relatives. In the rest of those cases, students are living in shelters or on the street.
The number of homeless students has risen 184 percent since the onset of the recession to hit a total of nearly 500 this semester.
However, the federal grant program has begun to dwindle as need has risen statewide. This year, the program gave out $1.2 million but received more than $4 million in applications.
Few rural school districts received any funding this year, which means they can’t even apply for funding for the next three years.
In addition, this semester 71 percent of the district’s students qualified for free and reduced school lunches, compared to less than half before the recession laid waste to the economics of many young families in Rim Country.
District officials said they were dismayed the district’s homeless student grant application was rejected, while many of the richest districts in the state received funding — including Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Kyrene — all in the Valley.
“I was also disappointed to see that most of the grants went to larger urban districts. Nothing for Gila, Graham, Greenlee, Apache, Navajo or Cochise counties,” said Campbell.
“Rural homelessness is a growing problem and we in rural Arizona lack the service infrastructure to adequately address this.
“We’ll press on and are already looking for other opportunities to support our students and families.”
The district used $80,000 last year and $68,000 the year before to provide a variety of services for families struggling desperately to keep a roof over their heads.
The district identified students living in unstable and inadequate conditions, then sent out a worker paid for from the grant to contact each family.
The homeless coordinator then connected those families to other organizations that could help them, including local food banks and charities.
“These folks have a lot of needs,” said Campbell. “We want to make sure the child is able to come to school without all those needs pressing on them so they’re ready to sit down and get busy with what their job is. School is the safest place for them to be during the day.”
The grant also paid for a tutoring program to help struggling homeless students pass the AIMS test. Studies showed that the tutoring has significantly raised scores.
In addition, the program provided general tutoring, summer school, special sessions during school breaks and other academic services. The district hoped to help students keep up despite chaotic living conditions, since studies show that three-quarters of students in such situations don’t graduate on time with their classmates — or drop out altogether.
“It’s really important to get to these kids before it’s too late,” said Campbell.
The grant, plus private donations, also provided money to supply more basic needs for students coming to school without food, showers and even basic clothing.
For instance, all the students automatically qualified for free and reduced school lunches, which means they could get at least two meals a day.
“We have this situation where the housing unit is not fixed, regular and adequate: they may not have heat. They may not have hot water. They may not have a stove to cook on. They may be living with another family in a travel trailer.
“We used some of that money to pay for things that are a little harder to get for a student. A lot of students will donate school supplies: but honestly, we needed a lot of shoes this year. We just had to go out and buy shoes by the bucket to get kids into new shoes to come to school.”
The weekend “Falling Leaves Fashioneesta” fund-raiser at the Senior Center was slated even before the district received news of the grant rejection.
With jewelry provided by Premier Designs and outfits by The Boutique, the two-hour show hoped to raise money to provide additional services for homeless kids.