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Billings public schools’ first homeless education liaison will retire after 21 years in position

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Sue Runkle will retire this spring after 21 years serving homeless students in the Billings school system.

Runkle coordinates transportation for students to get to school, makes sure they have school supplies, and tutors students weekly. She registers kids for summer camp, and makes sure they have enough clothes and food. And, she goes out of her way to make students and families happy, according to colleagues.

“When I first started, it was just at Washington [elementary] school, so it’s expanded a lot,” Runkle said. “The federal law had changed and we needed to have a homeless liaison and a homeless program. We didn’t quite know what that would look like, so it’s kind of developed over the years.”

Runkle now works with K-12 students throughout the district.

The district has served more than 500 students who have experienced homelessness during the school year, Runkle said. Schools count students cumulatively throughout the year, so there aren’t necessarily 500 students who are currently receiving services, she explained.

The biggest current challenge for the district's homeless education liaison is the lack of affordable housing in Billings that is contributing to homelessness, Runkle said.

“Homelessness has expanded,” said Dee Dee Larsen, principal at Washington Elementary, who works closely with Runkle. “It used to be kind of under the shadows or it was just those few at the shelter who were down on their luck. We know that that’s a lot different now. Homelessness is hitting all areas of our city, not just downtown and not just the South Side. It’s from north to south to east to west.”

As the first person to hold the position for Billings School District 2, Runkle has begun to see parents and grandparents of students she previously worked with who now have children of their own who need help. This is known as generational poverty.

“They remember her,” Larsen said. “They don’t forget the kindness and they don’t forget the lending hand that helped them get through.”

Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley is a non-profit shelter for families. It is one of many agencies with which Runkle partners. To qualify to stay there, guests must have custody of their children and have nowhere else to stay, said Michelle Downey, a social worker there.

“Sue Runkle is one of my first phone calls when I move a family into the shelter program at Family Promise. That is because our children are so important and we don’t want them to miss any more school,” Downey said.

Once families from the shelter connect with Runkle, they can choose whether to keep their children in the same school or transition to a different school closer to the shelter. Runkle then works to get the student what they need so that they can get to school and study with their classmates.

“We try to have somebody at each of the schools that the family is comfortable with already,” Runkle said, adding that sometimes she learns a student is homeless because a student or family confides in a person at their school who they trust.

Brenda Koch is a K-12 executive director for the district. She remembers contacting Runkle years ago while Koch was the superintendent of Elysian public schools. Runkle guided Koch to help homeless students even though Elysian is a separate school district.

“She is one of the most outstanding educators and human beings I have met in my entire life,” Koch said.

The program Runkle designed is a model program for the state, Koch added. “Other districts are constantly reaching out to her for ideas and what they can do in their district to implement them.”

Runkle plans to travel with her husband who is also retiring. “It’s just time,” she said, and that she hasn’t wrapped her head around leaving yet.

“We always say that anyone is replaceable, but Sue Runkle is pretty tough to replace,” Koch added. “I’m sure the person coming into the job will do a fine job, but they have big shoes to fill.”

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