That’s the number of students in the Madison Metropolitan School District identified as homeless seven weeks into the 2013-14 school year. The count is on a pace to continue record-setting numbers of homeless children over the past decade, say school officials.
The number of homeless children and youth in the school district has climbed more than 2-1/2 times since the 2004-2005 school year, from 485 to 1,263 in the 2012-2013 school year, according to district statistics.
“We’re learning more and more that the trauma created by having to go through homelessness stays with them the rest of their lives,” Amy Noble, a social worker with the school district, told participants at Homelessness in Dane County, a summit hosted Tuesday by Leadership Greater Madison.
The number of students in families who are homeless rises over the course of the school year as families lose housing and students’ circumstances are recognized by school personnel. The count, under federal law, includes children whose families are doubled up for economic reasons, a common circumstance for low-income families not included in most other calculations of the homeless population.
The number of students who are homeless is increasing as poverty in Madison rises and rents surge. A family in Madison looking for a two-bedroom apartment at an average rent of $850 a month needs an annual income of about $34,000, but families in a United Way of Dane County housing program for homeless families have earnings of only about $12,000 a year, according to data cited at the summit.
Through its Transitional Education Program (TEP), the Madison Metropolitan School District helps newly homeless families determine where children should attend school, and provides transportation, school supplies and other support.
Because children tend to fall behind four to six months every time they change schools and students whose families are homeless tend to move often, the TEP program works to keep children in the Madison schools they had been attending before the family was uprooted, Noble said.
“We try to keep the kids where they can learn,” said Jani Koester, a teacher assigned to the TEP program. “We do whatever we can.”
Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, in her first year with the Madison school district, says she has met with Noble and others about the needs of homeless children.
“I’m becoming increasingly aware of the challenges,” Cheatham said. “School can be the one stable force in some of these children’s lives.”
Noble and Koester encourage the public to become active on the larger issue of homelessness and advocate for adequate funding for housing, employment, health care, child care and transportation.
Concerned citizens can volunteer to mentor to one of the 600 children on the waiting list of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County or donate items like gift cards, snow pants, snow boots, alarm clocks and school supplies to the Transitional Education Program, they said.
The reason why it is important to support homeless students in the Madison schools might best be related in the words of some of the older children, whose poetry Koester read from:
“If you only knew me, you would know that I can’t go a day without laughing, but sometimes I cry myself to sleep,” wrote one.