It may be hard to notice them at first, but there are signs to watch for: They may come to school habitually disheveled, unwashed or wearing the same set of clothes day after day. They may not have previous school records or proof of immunization.
They are homeless students, and they present unique challenges for administrators.Imagine how a small child from a homeless family feels walking into school the first day and confronting an impatient secretary who demands to see his nonexistent immunization records, said Ann Benson, assistant director for student services in the Davis County School District. It is very intimidating.
"Simply by identifying (homeless students), we were able to help them," Benson said. "Just getting them registered helps a lot."
Benson has been training secretaries and registrars to help smooth the way. Homeless students can enter a new school with no previous school attendance records, and if they haven't been immunized they are immediately sent to the health department, given their first shot, and enter school the next day.
For the past few years Utah districts have received federal money to help homeless students, as a result of the Stewart B. McKinney Act of 1987.
Davis received $18,000 three years ago, but that has shrunk to $14,000 this year and a likely $10,000-12,000 next year. At the same time, the number of identified homeless students in the district has grown from 419 to 649. The increase is partly due to more careful monitoring, but Benson said the actual number has likely grown as well.
"There's a frustration, because you see a lot more needs than you have resources," she said.
Most of the students the Davis District helps are not living out of boxes or cars. They are legally homeless if they have moved three or more times in the past year or lack money for basic necessities. Benson said the majority are "piggy-backing," or temporarily bunking with friends or relatives.
"You really don't have an adequate residence in that situation," she said.
Holt Elementary Principal Julie Goble began targeting homeless students even before federal grant money became available. She saw children coming to school in sandals in the middle of winter, children wearing no underwear or socks, children waiting to enter school before 7 a.m. because they had nowhere else to go.
"The mother instinct came into play," she said.
Goble's faculty and students established a "clothes closet" for homeless students, helped families with Christmas presents ("This year we went to help two families and wound up helping a dozen") and hired a truant officer to monitor transient students.
One girl, a foster child, was going to lose the violin she loved to play at school music lessons. Goble found enough money to pay for a used one.
"This is very rewarding for me and our teachers, when we see kids happy and wanting to come to school," she said.
"Sometimes it takes us so long to get a handle on their situation that they're gone again before we really have a chance to make an impact," said Washington Elementary Principal Sharla Fillmore.
Sixteen schools in Davis got federal grant money for homeless students this year. Their projects include the following:
- One school established a mini-library where homeless students can take books home to keep.
- A student at the Young Parents School receives a small amount of money to help her pay for utilities.
- Mervyn's donation of $3,000, added to money from the school district, was used to give 50 homeless students a $75 credit each to shop for school outfits.
- One junior high principal allowed two homeless students, brothers, to take morning showers in school locker rooms.
- Two Clearfield schools are going halves with the city to pay admission fees to city recreation programs for homeless students.