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RCPS sees an increase in homeless students

CONYERS - Like all over the country, Rockdale County Public Schools are seeing a spike in the number of homeless students and families it serves.

April Fallon, liaison for homeless children and youth at RCPS, said the school system already has 105 students this school year that it classifies as homeless; at the end of the 2007-08 school year, the school system classified 167 students as homeless.

"And there are a lot of families we don't even know about," Fallon said, adding that the number tends to fluctuate during the year.

In 2005, RCPS also saw a surge with 206 homeless students, mainly from Hurricane Katrina evacuees; before that, the school system didn't have a good data source and ways to keep up with the number of homeless families in the county.

The school system classifies the homeless students based on the federal law, the McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which defines homeless as lacking a fixed, regular, adequate nighttime residence.

"This includes children living in shelters, motels and other places that aren't ordinary for sleeping," Fallon said. "The largest population this year and last year are those living in motels."

Fallon said for a reason unknown to her, the Flat Shoals Elementary and Pine Street Elementary school districts have high numbers of homeless students; she said that's possibly because a few hotels serve those areas.

The school system discovers the students are homeless by a variety of methods, including the families telling school officials during registration or a student mentioning something to a teacher, Fallon said.

Students who are deemed homeless will have a school social worker assigned to meet with their family and keep in contact with them to relay any messages from the school, provide assistance and access to resources as needed and helping them in other ways.

Schools also are required to provide additional tutoring and free lunches to homeless students. The McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act also requires the school system to allow students to remain in the school that he/she was enrolled in before becoming homeless and that the schools provide transportation to wherever the family decides to move; the parents or guardians have a choice to move the child to another school if they prefer.

Currently, RCPS provides transportation to 14 students who are staying at a shelter in Newton County; the school system refers families who ask for resources to two shelters in Newton County and one in Decatur, Fallon said.

"We try to minimize disruption as much as possible," Fallon said, adding that many of the homeless students are in elementary grades. "The high mobility and living in an unstable environment impacts education and frustrates kids."

So far, Fallon said RCPS hasn't seen a problem in older students dropping out of school, like other school systems across the nation, but she said school social workers do encourage those students and try to help them balance a job or prevent them from feeling like they have to take on a full-time job. Open Campus High School also provides an opportunity for students who need to attend a nontraditional school, such as taking classes during normal after-school hours.

"Most kids (in Rockdale) are in school and want to graduate," Fallon said. "And the parents are really committed."

The school social workers and employees also provide school supplies and links to community and area resources to the families; some schools even take up donations throughout the year or around the holidays during food drives.

"That really extends beyond homeless families this year," Fallon said. "There are some that are holding on to everything they've got ... having their power cut off or getting eviction notices."

She attributes a lot of the homelessness and other financial difficulties to recent mortgage and economic crises.

"It's heartbreaking; we want to do whatever we can," Fallon said.

Fallon said hopefully the Rockdale school system has seen its highest number of homeless students already - last year the number was highest in the fall - but the number can fluctuate throughout the school year as families move in and out of the county and in and out of shelters and other locations.

Families who become homeless or who have other financial difficulties are encouraged to contact their school social worker or administrator for resource contacts. The school system has brochures and a resource guide in their buildings and on its Web site, www.rockdale.k12.ga.us.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.