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No home for the holidays: Hundreds of homeless students in Lee schools

By Staff | Dec 18, 2010

The Lee County School District currently has 617 homeless students enrolled in elementary, middle and high schools, 82 of whom are enrolled in Cape Coral schools.
The McKinney-Vento Act Homeless Assistance defines homeless children and youth “as individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
The grade with the highest number of students for the district is kindergarten at 64 students.
Fort Myers Middle Academy has the most homeless students at 25 in Fort Myers and Skyline Elementary School has the most in Cape Coral with 12 students. There are nine 11th grade students enrolled at Cape Coral schools.
Executive Director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition Janet Bartos said as of last January there were 3,400 homeless individuals in Lee County. She said that includes a 21 percent increase in the number of families with children who are homeless.
Bartos said she believes that number has increased because of the downturn in the economy. She also expressed that families who are homeless usually experience a split in their family unit.
Merrilu Bennett, resource and media specialist for the Salvation Army of Lee, Hendry and Glades said there are currently 17 children who are living at the Red Shield Lodge, and six families. Approximately half of those students attend a Lee County school.
A school bus picks up the students from the lodge, Bennett said and then drop them off at the end of the day. Volunteer tutors come in and help them with their school work, along with tutors from the school district.
“We want to keep their lives as normal as possible,” she said. “We do our very best to make them feel like normal kids.”
Mattie Young, Lee County School District coordinator for student welfare and attendance and the district liaison for homeless children and youth, said the issue of homeless students first came to their attention in 1992 during the Hurricane Andrew natural disaster. She explained that following the hurricane families traveled to Lee County from Miami to enroll their children in the schools.
“We had emergency plans and procedures in place,” Young said, but at that time they were not anticipating the magnitude of students who needed to be enrolled in the district.
“We had over 200 students enrolled at that time.”
The school district conducts a preliminary screening to determine if a student is considered homeless on a case-by-case status.
“Once we identify them, we are really zeroing in on them,” Young said.
Due to the family’s circumstances, according to national and state law, homeless students are allowed to enroll into the school system without any documents, physicals or without any regular enrollment forms.
“We waive all those requirements for homeless students,” Young said.
There are five key provisions for the McKinney-Vento Act of 2001, which include immediate enrollment, choice of schools, transportation, services and dispute resolution for those students who are homeless. Young explained that the child is provided with the choice of schools by either attending their school of origin or relocating to another school closer to where they may be residing.
“They may be allowed to stay in their school because that provides the most stable and nutritional environment for these students,” she said.
Transportation is another key factor, Young said, because it looks out for the student’s best interest. For example if a student had been residing in the East Zone and is now living in the West Zone, he or she can be transported to their East Zone school, if feasible, even though they live in a different zone.
In 1992, the district began applying for supplemental funding from the Department of Education to assist them in providing the students with what they needed. In 1996, funding was awarded to help identify homeless students, along with providing supplemental services for them once they are enrolled in the district.
Project A.C.C.E.S.S., which stands for assist, clarify, coordinate, educate and support services, is a Homeless Student Program that the district offers to its students.
The program provides school supplies, backpacks and uniforms for each child.
“Since that time, our program has expanded and it now addresses enrollment, attendance and providing the support they need to succeed academically in school,” Young said.
Young said the federal government provides funding for the program. She explained that through stimulus recovery funding the district was able to hire 50 tutors to provide homeless students with extra assistance.
“It enabled us to provide supplemental services to these students,” Young said.
The funding is applied to “all types of programs that will focus on improving the academic achievements of these students because they are highly mobile,” Young said.
Last year the district was audited and received a 100 percent compliance for the program requirements.
“It is a stellar model program because we address all three components,” she said, adding that they identify students, have social workers that make sure the children attend school, along with providing tutoring services.