A school bus soon will resume its afternoon route taking McKinley Elementary students to downtown motels where they are staying with their parents. Another bus will transport children from the Montana Rescue Mission Women’s and Family Shelter to Washington Elementary. All around Billings, children and teens who are homeless will be in school and needing much more than academic instruction.
“It’s hard to do your homework when you don’t have your own space,” said Sue Runkle, homeless student liaison for Billings Public Schools. Over the past 14 years, Runkle has worked with homeless kids in each of the district’s 30 schools.
Last school year, Billings Public Schools served 583 homeless students in preschool through 12th grade. Statewide, public schools counted 2,551 homeless students in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Preliminary OPI data and Billings’ final count indicates that the statewide count will be higher for 2013-2014.
These numbers are shocking. In Billings alone, the number of homeless students identified last year is more than the entire enrollment of our largest elementary school. Statewide, the number of homeless students exceeds the total population of several counties. And not every homeless student is identified and counted.
The count of homeless students has grown both because schools have become more successful at identifying their needs and because more families are homeless.
OPI has ramped up efforts to better serve homeless students in the past three years. According to Allyson Hagen, OPI spokeswoman, the office has worked to educate educators about identifying and meeting the high needs of homeless students. The number of school districts receiving federal funds to assist homeless students has grown from five to 11. That includes Billings, Bozeman, Browning, Great Falls, Helena, Belgrade, Missoula, Kalispell and Sidney. These are the districts with the highest numbers of homeless students.
The federal grant through the McKinney-Vento Act covers Runkle’s salary, after school tutoring for homeless students and the costs of busing those students to the school they started in, even if the family moves.
Our public schools are called upon to do much more than teach children.
“When educators see families in crisis, they are able to provide children with safe places to be, food to eat, access to counselors, and even clothing and school supplies,” said Denise Juneau, Montana superintendent of public instruction. “Schools are a critical piece of community efforts to organize resources to support children and families in difficult situations.”
Most families in Billings are able to outfit their students for school, purchase the supplies on the class list and provide a safe, permanent home for their children. As school starts, let’s think about what it means for children who have none of that security.
If that thought concerns you, take action. Support local organizations that assist homeless families and homeless teens, such as Montana Rescue Mission and Tumbleweed. Tell your legislative and congressional candidates that you support measures to make affordable housing available to meet the needs in our community. Contact your school about donating children’s coats, backpacks or school supplies. Or call Runkle at 281-6719 to make a donation that will be used wherever the need is greatest in School District 2.