For many grade school children, a highlight of the day is when the bell rings and they get to ride home on the school bus. For hundreds of students attending school in Williamsburg and James City County however, there is no home to go to.
As of February 2019, W-JCC has identified 418 enrolled students who are considered homeless. It has remained at more than 400 students for the past five years.
Of the 16 schools in W-JCC, 13 have at least 10 students who have been homeless this school year, including all three high and all four middle schools.
According to Patricia Ann Popp, state coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, numbers such as that are disheartening, but unsurprising.
“We’ve been dealing with student homelessness as an issue since the 80s, but it began drawing much more attention on the local level sometime between Hurricane Katrina and the housing crisis in 2008, and the number of families and students displaced by those events,” Popp said.
“Today, with the lack of affordable housing and a growing number of families living in motels, couch surfing or even out of their cars, we’ve been focused on helping all we can, wherever we can.”
According to a 2015 study from the National Center for Homeless Education, there were 17,876 students considered homeless in Virginia, with the city of Richmond, Loudoun and Fairfax counties having more than 1,000 homeless students each. W-JCC’s number of homeless students put it on par with numbers from far larger localities within the commonwealth, such as Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
According to Karen Virella, W-JCC’s homeless education liaison, all of Williamsburg’s schools follow standards set by the federal McKinney-Vento Assistance Act, which requires that homeless students have access to a “full and equal” education, even if they don’t have documentation, such as previous academic records, birth records, medical records or proof of residency.
“W-JCC provides immediate enrollment for all homeless students, with or without required documentation and in some cases, transportation is provided to allow for consistency in the student’s education,” Virella said. “We also provide homeless students with free lunches and work to refer them to available resources in the community when we can.”
It’s also not uncommon for school divisions to work together when a student is living outside of the school’s regular residency area. The school of origin — where a student was last enrolled — works with the school division where the student physically resides to find which school division would be best for the student to attend.
Other help comes from local aid groups such as Project HOPE, a program administered by the College of William and Mary School of Education that provides students with help ranging from study aid to summer enrichment programs, or FISH Inc., a charity group that several local churches work with to provide food and clothing to residents.
Gene Bruss, president of FISH Inc., says the group takes whatever steps it can to provide specialized aid to any likely homeless recipients.
“While we cannot inquire if people receiving goods from us are homeless, but sometimes while they’re here they will mention that they’re living at a motel, or out of their car,” Bruss said. “We then try to provide more canned or microwavable goods, the kinds of things you can prepare without a kitchen.”
In 2018, Fish Inc. fulfilled 4,139 requests for assistance, including nearly 100 to Head Start families, providing the equivalent of more than 171,000 meals.
While missing meals is one issue, it’s far from the only one that homeless students must deal with, or that local schools must address.
“A homeless student may not have access to school supplies, health care or even daily meals, and each of these factors can impact a student’s education,” Virella said. “We have a social worker assigned to each school, as well as the part-time Homeless Education Facilitator who works to provide homeless families with referrals to resources in the community for clothing, food, school supplies, access to health care and shelter.”
There is also a greater, unseen issue many homeless students deal with: trauma.
“Homelessness is itself deeply traumatic, and when children are traumatized, their schoolwork suffers, even when we do all that we can to help, and it can even have an impact on their physical health as well as mental health,” Popp said. “When children are missing the stability of a home, it becomes all the more critical for schools to be able to provide that missing sense of stability.”
According to a study from William and Mary, the graduation rate for homeless students in Virginia is 71.47 percent, a full 20 percentage points below the statewide average of 91.59 percent.
“School divisions need to realize that it is a trauma and should be treated as such, and school employees — from guidance counselors to teachers — need to know how to handle that trauma,” Popp said. “The most important job we have as educators is to provide a safe place for students to learn, and for students affected by homelessness, it’s even more important when the school may be the safest place these children may have.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email email@example.com, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.