Housing stability should not predict student success in region’s district with highest homeless rate

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Students experiencing homelessness are not just beating the odds in the Tukwila School District—they are graduating at a higher percentage than their class in total and surpassing the state average by more than 20 percentage points.

“The obstacles facing students without stable housing are almost unimaginable as they struggle to stay in school and graduate,” said Superintendent Nancy Coogan. “In Tukwila, we have more than double the rate of homelessness than any other district in the Puget Sound region, but I am proud to say that we are supporting our students across the finish line. It’s an entire community effort. We want to make sure that a student’s housing situation is not a predictor of academic success, which is too often the case.”

In 2015, the four-year graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness in Tukwila was 73 percent, exceeding the overall district graduation rate of 70 percent. The state average for homeless students was 52 percent. Tukwila also had the highest homeless graduation rate in the state for districts with a significant concentration of homeless students. While four other districts statewide had higher homeless graduation rates, Tukwila was the only district with a double-digit homeless concentration. (The district with the top homeless graduation rate, Northshore, had 1 percent homeless population compared to Tukwila’s 11 percent).

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act, school districts have the responsibility to identify and support any students who experience housing instability. Although the law does not allocate any funding to support the identified students, in Tukwila the community comes together to go above and beyond.

“I truly believe that our outstanding graduation rate is due to the work of caring staff and community members, and their efforts have not only helped our McKinney-Vento students, but brought about a culture of care and support that helps all students,” said Jonathan Houston, Tukwila School District’s McKinney-Vento Coordinator.

Houston credits a robust campaign to identify families that qualify for McKinney-Vento services and a staff- and community-wide effort to scaffold them with resources, which began under his predecessor Kathleen Gantz. His goal is to know every McKinney-Vento student by name and need. He and his colleagues makes sure that families have access to transportation, counseling, academic tutoring, and reduced school fees.

The school board has also prioritized local funding to provide extra school social workers, community liaisons, and counselors, including a dropout/re-engagement specialist at the high school who personally tracks down any student who stops coming to school. All of these staff members regularly check in with students who are struggling socially, academically, or physically. Districtwide, principals and educators focus on early-warning indicators, such as low attendance or slipping grades, to trigger wrap-around services for a student before he or she falls too far behind. Tukwila is one of the only districts to organize an annual career fair for parents, focused on living-wage jobs and skills for moms and dads.

“I want to give kudos to our teachers who go out of their way to provide after-school support and work with students to make up work,” Houston said. “I have personally worked with a teacher to ensure that a student could get her grade adjusted once she finished her assignment because of circumstances beyond her control. Everyone is in this together.”

“We hold our students to high standards, but we also understand the role of compassion,” Coogan added.

The greater Tukwila community is also crucial to the success of students experiencing homelessness. The City of Tukwila’s Human Services Department, local food and clothing banks, faith-based organizations, and many individual residents are strong partners. Pastor Jan Bolerjack of Riverton Park United Methodist Church, for example, continually opens her ministry to families who need a bed. Another community member, Jenny McCoy, has mobilized an army of volunteers and ongoing donations to provide a backpack full of food to every elementary McKinney-Vento student each weekend (including business support from Macy’s Logistics and ThriftIt). The local branch of Inspirus Credit Union recently gave a $1,500 grant to the McKinney-Vento program for after-school enrichment. Behind many of these endeavors, the Tukwila Children’s Foundation often spearheads fundraising efforts, administers grants, provides financial oversight, and organizes volunteers for families in emergency situations. Whenever there is a need—childcare, clothes, bedding, medication—an informal network of Tukwila residents and organizations does its best to fill it.

“All I can say is a very humble thank you,” Coogan said. “Our ultimate goal is to never have to graduate another student experiencing homelessness again; but until all our families have stability, we will keep coming together to do whatever it takes. Education is the pathway for these students to see a brighter future.”

Innovative homeless study coming to Tukwila School District

Enterprise Community Partners has selected Tukwila as a partner for a comprehensive new study to identify and analyze patterns of homelessness in families. The result will be a menu of recommended solutions that shift focus and resources from mitigation of crisis into prevention and stability-for improvements in Tukwila, the region, and throughout the nation. The Tukwila School District was selected because it has more than double the homeless rate of any other district in the region as well as close relationships with its homeless families (essential for the interview and study process). Ultimately, the Tukwila community wants to be proactive in its approach so that instead of supporting homeless students, students do not become homeless in the first place.