Although the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District has the second-highest percentage of homeless students in Sacramento County, the staff that reaches out to these students in the hopes of getting them back in school has been reduced due to budget cuts.
"It saddens me whenever we have to cut any position that supports students and their families who are struggling," school board president John Gordon said. "Unfortunately, school districts are continually forced to do more with less. As a school district, we must use our limited resources effectively and find ways to ensure our homeless students don't slip through the cracks."
A comprehensive report on child welfare prepared by the Sacramento County Children's Commission and released last week counted 7,254 homeless children and youths among their students last year. Of those, 467 — or 11 percent of its total enrollment — hailed from the Galt district.
The countywide figures show a jump of more than 50 percent since 2005.
Commission members, appointed by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, also reviewed child safety, academic achievement, family economics and health.
Last month, the Galt elementary school board eliminated the equivalent of 1.5 outreach consultants for next school year.
"We will still have two-and-a-half positions to assist at-risk students with success at school," Superintendent Karen Schauer said.
Outreach staff members work with students, parents and staff to resolve problems that can interfere with school attendance or their adjustment to school. They perform a range of job duties, including making home visits, promoting awareness of substance abuse programs, and helping parents use appropriate support resources.
In the past, they have gone door-to-door knocking on residences where former students were known to live. Many of the homes were abandoned, likely the victims of foreclosure.
"Continuing to have a high percentage of homeless students in our district is very concerning," Schauer said regarding the county's report.
"I am grateful that we continue to have McKinney-Vento Act funding that helps to fund one of our remaining outreach counselors as a homeless education liaison," Schauer said.
In 2009, the district shared with the high school district the federal grant worth more than $350,000 to help bolster the number of students attending its seven campuses and the high school district's three schools.
That year, the rate of homeless students actually went down from 467 reported by the county in 2009 to 529 students counted by district staff in 2008.
Figures lower in neighboring districts
Officials have previously said the homeless population is hidden in Galt because there is no homeless shelter. Instead, outreach counselors hear about many of the families they help through word of mouth or local churches.
Through the McKinney-Vento Act, the elementary district operates the Sunshine Food and Clothes Closet with community volunteers at the Fairsite location every Thursday morning.
The district's homeless education liaison also assists homeless students and families in meeting educational services and resources needs.
"Unfortunately, one fewer outreach counselor makes this work harder since our outreach counselors assist the homeless education liaison with this work for our communities students," Schauer said.
Comparatively, the high school district reported 83 homeless children in 2009-10. That's about 4 percent of the district's total enrollment.
And Arcohe Union School District in Herald saw 22 homeless children, or 5 percent of its enrollment.
The statistics on homeless students were collected by school districts, which use federal guidelines to identify children who are in unstable households. Children in "homeless situations" by the federal definition "lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," and include those who are sleeping in motels, campgrounds, shelters or on the sofas of relatives.
"We're not talking about a family who is renting an apartment with roommates," said Hilary Krogh, coordinator of the county Office of Education's Project TEACH program for homeless children. "These are kids who truly do not have stable housing from night to night."
Krogh works with homeless liaisons within each school district to identify such children and link them with services that help them stay in class. Those services are harder to come by these days because of an increase in demand and cuts in social "safety net" programs, said Krogh and others.
Many of these students are sleeping in shelters, motels, spare bedrooms, camping tents and even the family van due to job loss, home foreclosures and other issues related to the economy. And some can't even be found, which is affecting school enrollment figures up and down the state.
Families with children are among the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population, and most are under the age of six, according to the National Center of Family Homelessness.
The number reported last week by Sacramento County differs with a federally mandated census conducted on a single night earlier this year. The census documented a drop in the number of men, women and children living on the streets and in shelters in the county.
But that "street count" does not accurately represent the number of school-age children who are homeless, said Bob Erlenbusch, policy director of the Sacramento Housing Alliance.
"We have known for years that the census undercounts families and children," who may not be sleeping in shelters or along the river but rather "couch-surfing" with friends or relatives, he said.
Still, said Erlenbusch, "I was surprised that the number of homeless kids and youth going to school each day had jumped 50 percent in five years. That's a huge number."
National rate up, too
Nationally, public schools saw a 38 percent increase in students who were homeless during the period documented in the Sacramento report, said Barbara Duffield of the National Association of Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
In a survey of the top reasons for student homelessness, schools cited the recession and job loss at the top, Duffield said.
California — hit particularly hard by the combination of a high cost of living, the housing crisis and lack of jobs — has more homeless students than any other state in the nation. In 2009, nearly a third of all homeless students nationwide lived in California, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Not surprisingly, these students often struggle academically.
Nationwide, about half of homeless students in third through eighth grade score proficient in math and English, according to a 2010 department of education report. In high school, about half of homeless students are proficient in English, but math proficiency falls to about 38 percent, the government reports.
For the 2009-10 school year in California, only 39 percent of homeless students in third through eighth grade scored proficient or above in math, and 35 percent in English, according to state data that tracks schools receiving federal funding for homeless students. In high school, 33 percent of homeless students scored proficient or above in math, and 41 percent in English.
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.