This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
As of May 10, 218 students were enrolled in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Students in Transition Program, Kelly King, program coordinator for the district, said. The 16-year-old program provides services to homeless students and students no longer in the custody of their parent or legal guardian.
The number puts the 2018-2019 school year roughly on track to match previous years. On average, the program serves around 250 students per year.
At the beginning of the school year, the program saw a 42% increase from previous years in the number of students the program was serving, with 98 students referred by mid-September.
In comparison, 69 students were identified as homeless at the same time in 2017, prompting fears of a spike in student homelessness.
At the beginning of the school year, King said she couldn’t attribute any one thing to the enrollment rise in September, the Clarion previously reported. She said the homelessness issue on the central peninsula often goes unnoticed, due to how spread out communities are. Enrollment is always high at the beginning of the year, and continues to grow throughout the year.
The Students in Transition Program provides a number of resources to students, including school supplies, hygiene products, free meals, transportation to and from school and other things that can be a stressor for a family when their housing situation is vulnerable.
King has been the coordinator for nearly 11 years, and works with Jane Dunn, a liaison in Homer who serves the southern peninsula. Their jobs are to help identify homeless students within the district. The program takes referrals until the last day of school.
With the end of the school year, comes the end of the program’s ability to provide services for students.
“Both district liaisons work at linking students to as many supports and services as possible before the school year ends,” King said.
Referrals come from a variety of places, including students, parents and school staff. When a student is referred, King does a needs assessment to make sure the child qualifies for the federal definition of homelessness. After a student is enrolled, they are enrolled for the entire school year. Youth enrolled in the program must be attending school.
“It’s critical for the public to understand that KPBSD strategically uses all available sources to support students on the peninsula, but are required to follow the specific requirements of individual funding sources,” Tim Vlasak, director of K-12 schools, assessment, and federal programs, said.
The program is required by law to define homelessness using the federal law standards provided in the McKinney-Vento Act, an act passed in 1987 providing federal money for homeless shelters and programs.
“It’s important for people to understand this definition isn’t something KPBSD came up with,” King said. “We are required to use the definition given by the McKinney-Vento Act, which is a federal law. This is the same definition districts across Alaska and the country are using to identify students experiencing homelessness.”
King said residents interested in giving a helping hand during the summer can help by supporting local service agencies.
“We always encourage community members to look at ways they can support local service agencies that assist our students and families, such as local food pantries and food banks or Love, INC of the Kenai Peninsula,” King said. “These groups are assisting our vulnerable neighbors year-round.”