Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Honolulu Advertiser: Help for homeless children noticed

Hawaii ranks 3rd in providing access to school, support services


Hawai'i is among the best in the nation — ranking third — at caring for homeless children, having decreased barriers to education and ensured access to support services, according to a new report released by the National Center on Family Homelessness.

The report, "America's Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness," says the state has attempted to remove barriers homeless children encounter when enrolling in public schools, provides appropriate transportation to and from school and provides equal access to support and tutoring services.

Daniel Hamada, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and student support, said the report acknowledges the work the state has been doing to revamp the way in which it helps homeless children.

"Kids are the victim in this," Hamada said. "Our focus has been to break down the barriers they may face in achieving," he said.

The report highlights the state's low percentage of homeless children, saying the extent of Hawai'i's homeless problem is less severe than that of many other states. About 0.6 percent, or 1,566 children, are homeless in Hawai'i, according to federally reported data. Louisiana, with 18.7 percent of its children homeless, ranked at the bottom of the list.

But the report also found that Hawai'i's housing costs outpace wages, putting many Island children at high risk of becoming homeless. Hawai'i's average wage earner makes $12.42 an hour; at that wage, 93 hours per week must be worked to afford fair market rent in Hawai'i. For families in that position, a minor event such as an illness in the family could push the family out onto the streets.

The report comes just seven months after the state settled a federal lawsuit alleging homeless children around the state were being denied equal access to public education.

The settlement required that the state improve its transportation services to and from schools for families living in shelters, cars or on the beach. The DOE was also pushed to improve the way in which the state identifies homeless children.

Even before the lawsuit was settled, Hamada said the DOE changed its enrollment forms and procedures to better identify homeless families and inform them of the services that are available.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, states are required to provide transportation to and from school and allow homeless families to choose which school they'd prefer their child to attend. The state currently receives about $200,000 a year under McKinney-Vento.

Hamada said many homeless families are transient, and rather than force families to transfer their child to a different school each time they move, the DOE allows families to choose where they'd like their child to attend school. The DOE then provides various transportation options.

"Depending on the individual situation, we may provide a bus, a mileage allowance or a (city) bus pass for older students," Hamada said.

The public school system also employs 16 liaisons for the homeless to coordinate services with the school and families. Schools are equipped to provide behavioral health support, counseling and tutoring services, Hamada said. Schools also coordinate with the state Department of Health and shelters for services such as immunizations and healthcare.

But the report also found that homeless children in Hawai'i do not perform at the same academic level as other students.

Measured using the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress standards, Hawai'i's homeless children and children living in poverty score well below in reading and math proficiency than kids who are not at an economic disadvantage.

Glen Kila, principal of Kamaile Elementary School, said schools in communities with a high concentration of homeless children often have to focus on providing necessities — soap, school supplies and meals — in addition to educational services.

Teachers often volunteer their time before and after school to provide tutoring services to help children who fall behind, he said.

At Kamaile, a public charter school, some 75 students come from families that have identified themselves as homeless. But Kila said the actual number is probably more.

"They live in fear. They're afraid of being found out by Child Protective Services," Kila said.

So the challenge for public schools is identifying the families and communicating the services that they can receive. For instance, Kamaile opens its doors as early as 6:30 a.m., knowing that many homeless parents must catch the bus early to go to work. The school even provides kids with backpacks, school supplies and school uniforms.

"We have washer machines, dryers, whatever it takes," Kila said.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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