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Schools best poised to help homeless teens
Late last week, Fairfax County Public Schools officials announced they expect the number of homeless students in their school district to top 2,500 this year, a new record for a county that remains one of the most affluent in the nation.
As reported by The Washington Post, this year’s homeless student population in the Fairfax County school district will be more than 10 times the number counted only 15 years ago, underscoring a disturbing trend throughout the nation as a whole.
This summer, the Department of Education announced that the number of homeless students across the nation topped 1,065,000 in the 2010-2011 school year—the most recent national data available—a 13 percent increase from just a year before.
While commentators are quick to blame the increase in homeless youth on the lingering effects of the economic downturn, it is not enough to assume the problem will go away when unemployment normalizes. Instead, governments of all sizes should be looking to the public education system to identify and assist students without a roof over their heads.
Schools are the ideal institution to identify homeless youth and connect them with support systems inside and out of the education system. However, students simply sitting in the classroom will not often reveal their struggles to teachers or administrators. That requires a deeper, more personal relationship between the student and school employee.
The best way for government to make sure these relationships are being forged is to give struggling students personalized attention from teachers and support staff like counselors. This necessarily means employing more of them, for there is a limited number of students each staff member can impact.
Unfortunately, when school budgets get tight, educational support staffers are often the first people out the door, and state education funding cuts have forced this phenomenon across the nation. Little data exists on the number of support staff cut since the beginning of the recession, but the Hamilton Project, a division of the conservative Brookings Institution, estimates that over 220,000 teachers lost their jobs from 2009 to 2011.
Among other things, these rampant layoffs mean that fewer teachers are dealing with the needs of more students. They have less time to interact personally with those who have specific personal needs like homelessness. Recharging educational spending across the nation won’t fix many of the problems contributing to the high rate of student homelessness, but it is absolutely essential if we are serious about identifying these students, connecting them with the appropriate support systems, and making sure they have the ability to overcome the obstacles inherent in their situation.