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Helping homeless succeed
MUSD serves 585 homeless students
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The kid was being disruptive

It was in a Joshua Cowell kindergarten class that Manteca Unified Superintendent Jason Messer had stopped by several years ago.

At one point, the boy picked up a rock and was about to throw it at another student when Messer interceded.

Messer took the rock and talked with the boy. He found out the problem: The boy’s shoes were way too tight and they were causing him non-stop pain.

“His attitude changed when he was able to kick off the shoes,” Messer recalled.

Addressing distractions that prevent learning from taking place is a key to success in the classroom.

That is especially true when it comes to the district’s current 585 students that are classified as homeless.

How Manteca Unified strives to help those students succeed is considered a model among county districts. The effort goes as far as to include on-campus clothing closets where homeless students as well as the low-income can obtain gently used clothes and even unused new underwear courtesy of parents clubs and community donations.

Organizers such as the Women of Del Webb donate funds that allow the district to buy everything from school supplies to toiletries for homeless students. And it isn’t just a matter of making sure they are adequately clothed.

“The clothes closet at Manteca High has a large selection of spirit wear, prom dresses, and (the latest clothing trends),” Messer noted.

Fitting in is just as important as being adequately clothed.

• • •

Homeless liaison at every campus

The district has a teacher identified as a homeless liaison at every campus to make sure homeless students are identified and given the attention they need.

Serving homeless students is a requirement of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. The district doesn’t simply comply with all of the requirements of the federal law once a student is identified as homeless. Schools make a concerted effort to reach out to find such students and offers additional services that go beyond the federal law.

McKinney-Vento defines homelessness as lacking a fixed, regular, adequate night-time residence and includes students living in the following situations:

• Sharing housing with family/friends due to loss of housing or economic hardship.

• Emergency or transitional shelters such as domestic violence or homeless shelters.

• Transitional housing.

• Motels or hotel.

• Campgrounds and inadequate trailer homes.

• Cars, abandoned buildings, parks, the streets or public places.

• Runaway/homeless youth shelters.

The enrollment of homeless students in Manteca Unified peaked at 858 this school year. Currently it is at 585 or 2.5 out of every 100 students. The fact 273 homeless students have moved out of the district show how transient — and challenging — the student homeless population is for a school district.

Among the challenges:

• It can be difficult to identify homeless students as parents are often hesitant to share such information with school staff due to embarrassment.

• Students are often academically behind due to frequent school changes.

• There are often family stresses such as a divorce, loss of job poverty and frequent moves that impact the children.

Messer noted teachers working with administrators have made it their mission to avoid letting homeless students slip through the cracks.

• • •

Older students hard to reachdue to their embarrassment

To that extent besides donated school supplies and clothing from the community the district provides meals, transportation, counseling, and homework assistance.

But even doing that can be a challenge.

“Normally it isn’t a problem identifying younger kids but those who are older and in high school don’t want anyone to know they are homeless because they are embarrassed,” Messer said. “They often won’t sign up for free meals.”

Messer added it isn’t usual for the high school siblings of younger homeless children on free meals to opt to go without eating breakfast or lunch at school out of embarrassment.

Steps the district takes to assist homeless students include:

• Making sure homeless students are immediately enrolled without requiring documents such as immunization records or proof of residence.

• Transportation to and from school of origin. There are four vans dedicated to that purpose with trips often going as far as Lodi and Stockton to make sure students stay in the same school throughout the academic year. Currently 60 homeless students are being transported.

• Free breakfast and lunch.

• School supplies and backpacks.

• Clothing, shoes and other items as needed to ensure full participation in school.

• Counseling at school sites.

• Tutoring support.

• Medical/dental referrals and assistance accessing these services.

It doesn’t stop there.

• • •

Some staff members take home homeless students’ clothes to wash them

“If you’re homeless doing something as simple as laundry can be a half day job,” Messer noted. “We take it for granted but they need a way to get to a place they can wash clothes and have to pay for transportation. Once there they need quarters for then machines and they need laundry detergent.”

It is why some teachers and staff members at various schools take it upon themselves to take homeless kids’ clothes home, wash them and bring them back the next day. It isn’t uncommon for homeless students to change into other clothes discreetly that are kept for them on campus so they won’t be seen in dirty and ragged clothes by their classmates.

Messer said the dental and medical referrals are big things.

“When kids get into the seventh and eighth grade you will see some (homeless kids) always talk with their hands over their mouths because they are embarrassed about their teeth,” the superintendent said.

The key to Manteca’s high level of success in helping homeless students function better in school was a decision to have teacher liaisons that receive referrals about homeless students at each site. They communicate with the referring classroom teacher to keep tabs on academic progress and the need for academic intervention.

The district’s health service oversees the program. They work with families to fill out health insurance applications and related matters.