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To give schoolchildren a leg up, start with some housing

Too many students come to school after spending nights in homeless shelters, in cars, or with multiple families squeezed into one apartment.

Each decision to close school due to the weather is a challenge for school superintendents. With this year’s historic cold, time and again we weighed logistical questions about classroom time, curricula, and families’ needs. But for the thousands of Minnesota students who are homeless, our decisions to close school also meant that other basic needs might not be met.

More than 300,000 students rely on school for free breakfast and lunch each year in Minnesota. During the 2013 school year, 13,098 students were identified as homeless or precariously housed. Minnesota students came to school after spending nights in homeless shelters, in cars, or with multiple families squeezed into one apartment.

If just for cost reasons alone, we would support investments in housing, such as $100 million in bonding for housing proposed at the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Minnesota school districts spend an additional $8 million each year transporting homeless students to keep them stable in their schools for the year, a requirement under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Among very low-income students, those who have stable housing do better in school than those who are homeless, University of Minnesota research finds. As we should, we commit resources to make sure that homelessness does not dictate our students’ future.

But the intangible costs of homelessness take an even greater toll.

Lives made harsh

Every day teachers and other school staff hear from students the realities of their young lives made harsh by lack of safe and stable housing.

  • A student’s mom loses both of her part-time jobs, and the family starts moving from one place to another, sometimes staying just a week before their welcome wears out.
  • A teacher notices a student falling asleep in the classroom. Privately he confides that he’s uncertain where he will be spending the night — again.
  • A worried student tells her teacher that she wants to check on her younger siblings — or even her parents – because they are anxious about not having a place to live with her parents unable to find work.

Younger students are more likely to share such stories with teachers day-to-day. The older ones more often turn to teachers only reluctantly, out of desperation.

When large numbers of homeless students change schools throughout the year, disruption ensues not just in their lives, but for their peers, too. When children can’t form trusting relationships due to constant instability, when they act out in class, or can’t concentrate because of inadequate sleep, whole classrooms are set adrift from their studies.

In communities like Duluth, shelters are frequently full. Families turned away at night have little choice but to go elsewhere. So we worry most about the children who simply fail to show up again at school.

Above and beyond

Caring teachers often go above and beyond — making sure that school food shelves are stocked, holding coat or mitten drives each year, and keeping hygiene supplies on hand. Some districts send nutritious snacks home to those in greatest need, for an early supper or perhaps the only supper.

State leaders are also doing their part. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is executing action steps outlined by first the state’s first Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers ramped up efforts to prevent homelessness and to support homeless youth.

As superintendents we, too, wish to address student homelessness proactively. For this reason, we support bonding for housing at the state Legislature this year.

When students are safe, stable, and primed for learning, we can focus our energy where it should be today: on the business of educating our students. Otherwise, how will our youth be ready for the challenges of tomorrow?

Submitted by the following Minnesota school superintendents: Michael Munoz (Rochester), William Gronseth (Duluth), Lynne Kovash (Moorhead), Mark Bonine (Brooklyn Center),  Bernadeia Johnson (Minneapolis), Valeria Silva (St. Paul), Dennis Carlson (Anoka Hennepin), Les Fujitake (Bloomington).

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