Campaign focuses on homeless students’ rights
EVERETT - “Oh here we go again.”
“How do I get to my classroom?”
“Will I ever find long-lasting friends?”
These are some of the thoughts that spin in the heads of kids who switch schools during the year, which happens often to homeless students.
Homeless students not only have to deal with the burden of lacking a home, they also face the possibility of frequently having to change schools as part of their journey to complete school.
A group of four Evergreen Middle School kids are trying to help their fellow students by getting this message out: “You Can Stay.”
Their message talks about the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which says state laws concerning public education can’t discriminate against homeless students. One of the act’s provisions says schools must provide transportation for homeless students forced to move away from their original school because they lack a home.
The Everett School District is spending $80,000 this school year to meet that provision.
The group also unofficially adopted the Everett Interfaith Shelter, raising money to buy the shelter laptops so students can study. The group also held a substantial book drive to create a teen library at the shelter.
The students learned advertising techniques and made new kid-friendly posters promoting McKinney-Vento. The old 1990s-era posters for McKinney-Vento don’t grab kids’ attention, they said.
They were able to get the posters onto Everett Transit’s buses and at some Everett businesses.
“At the beginning, we thought our project would be very small.” Now it has grown, Lukas Poischbeg, 12, said.
It’s important to get the message out, the kids said. Students who repeatedly change schools can lose four to six months of learning with each transition. Homeless students miss more school days and get worse grades, according to Everett School District data.
The district has 507 homeless students among its 18,000 students, according to latest figures from district homeless liaison Mary Ellen Hardy. A majority of its homeless students are couch surfing or “doubled up” with multiple families living under one roof. Almost 200 live in shelters.
Three of the four Evergreen students working on the education campaign personally know what it is like to change schools.
Moving schools means you have to learn how the new school works, Christie Luttrell, 13, said. Sometimes the classes are ahead of your old school, Christie said. She’s been to six different schools.
Finding friends adds to the challenge, the kids said.
“It’s a big turning point … you don’t make friends like you did before,” Henrik Kiaer, 12, said. Henrik’s been to five different schools.
Moving around means it’s hard to find a long-term best friend, Christie said. “It takes away your childhood memories,” Christie said.
Mariana Vazquez, 13, has changed schools five times, sometimes because of family situations, she said. She said she knew one girl who moved schools twice in the span of two weeks. She hopes their message gets out to kids.
“Maybe they can get into McKinney-Vento and stay,” Mariana said.
The group adopted the Everett Interfaith Shelter in the Riverside Neighborhood after learning about the needs of the shelter. The group learned the shelter has no computers for kids and hardly any books. The kids raised $500 to buy laptops for the shelter.
“If you don’t have a computer, you don’t get good grades,” Christie said.
Last week, Henrik and Lukas saw how many books the book drive collected.
“Nice,” Lukas said upon seeing the big pile of books in the teacher’s lounge. “There’s going to be a lot of kids reading this summer.”
The group supports the Everett Interfaith Shelter because that shelter allows kids to stay with their parents up to age 18, Christie said.
The Everett Gospel Mission does not allow children in the men’s mission, director Sylvia Anderson said. Single dads with their kids in tow are sometimes given motel vouchers, she said.
Separating kids from parents is not healthy, Christie said. “A kid needs their dad or their mom,” Christie said.
The district’s homeless figures surprised the students.
“I thought it would be 100,” Lukas said.
Evergreen Middle School has the second-highest number of homeless students.
The kids’ project is in the running for a $25,000 grant for the Interfaith Shelter from the Christopher Columbus Foundation. The foundation challenges kids to solve a community problem. The group will learn April 13 if their project advances to the semifinals. The winners get to go to Florida.
“It’s not about going to Florida,” Lukas said. “It’s the $25,000.”
“Even if we don’t win, we’re glad we made a difference in the community,” Christie said. “There are kids that have seen our poster.”
The kids worked with counselor Kendall Berry to do the project.
“That quote ‘never underestimate the power of youth’, I think they personify that,” Berry said.
The Everett School Board recently honored the group.
This project is important for everyone’s future, she said.
“We need our generation to step up,” Christie said.
By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published April 4, 2012