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School struggles to meet needs of “homeless” students

Posted 1/08/14 (Wed)

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

As the face of McKenzie County Public School District No. 1’s student population changes, the district continues to face a unique set of circumstances that, in many ways, challenges its ‘old’ tried and true approach to education.
At the beginning of the school year, the McKenzie County Farmer ran a story telling of the high enrollment numbers in both the elementary and high school buildings. To date, the school has 1,060 students in grades K-12. But what is not seen in those numbers is the fact that roughly 25 percent of the student population, 254 students within the elementary and high schools, is considered to be homeless.
“The McKinney-Vento Act identifies any student who is living in a non-fixed dwelling, such as a RV, hotel, or in a multi-family home, as homeless,” states Steve Holen. district superintendent. “Anything that is not fixed and is, by nature, mobile, temporary or transitional.”
Over the past year, the number of homeless students attending school in Watford City has ranged from 200 to 250, but has mostly been closer to 250. According to Holen, having such a large number of homeless students has caused the school, and its teachers, to rethink education. It is not because these are bad students, but rather because their home life may create challenges that the school district is not used to.
“There is a heightened awareness of the challenges that this situation presents that we are not used to facing. We have had to become conscious of the fact that the old model might not be possible,” states Holen. “Our students who are considered homeless may be going home to tight quarters and their resources may be limited. They might not have access to technology or they may be sharing space with a lot of other children. And it may be difficult for them to complete class assignments.”
According to Brad Foss, Elementary School principal, a large percentage of his student population does not have the resources the school faculty and staff are used to seeing available to their students. And that makes teaching difficult.
“For our students living in these types of conditions, the school can be a safe place for them, a place to more freely stretch out, move, talk and play, along with being educated,” states Foss. “For this reason, from the time our students are on this campus until the time they go home, we try to instill the best in them. Some families out here are just trying to survive. And we have noticed that, because of that fact, our teachers wind up teaching more than what is in the books to their students.”
On top of 254 homeless students, the school district is also facing a high number of incoming and outgoing students on a weekly basis. It is a fact that, to the outside observer, may seem minimal. But to those staff and students who are constantly saying, “hello,” and, “goodbye,” it can be quite difficult.
On the first day of school, the school district had 1,005 students enrolled in both the elementary and high schools, roughly 200 new students more than last year. To date, those numbers have risen to 1,060. Not a huge jump, by any standards. And when taken alone, could be seen as a sign of plateau.
But, when taken with the fact that roughly 400 new students have been enrolled in the district this year, 200 at the beginning of school and 200 between then and now, the numbers tell a much different story.
“Even though our net number of students may not be changing, or may only change slightly from week to week, a lot of effort goes into the enrollment and unenrollment of a student,” states Holen.
Holen states that behind the scenes of the constantly changing numbers is an increased workload for school staff and teachers.
“It is very hard to keep track of who is coming and going, and all the legal documents that go with that,” states Foss. “Sometimes it can seem like we are continually faxing other schools and/or they are faxing us. And some of the families that move in have already moved five or six times within the past year.”
On top of that, each student goes through an assessment to determine how to best meet their educational needs.
“There is a team of people that assess each incoming student. The reading specialist assesses their reading level and the classroom teacher assesses their math abilities,” states Foss. “We try to ascertain where each student is so we can know where to best place them.”
Foss states that the constant flux of students can compromise that system, but his teachers do their best to maintain normalcy throughout the school year.
Holen, too, highly credits the people who are working within the district, both in the elementary and high school, for meeting the challenges the district has faced with their best.
“We really commend our teachers and staff for the work they are doing,” states Holen. “Behind our constantly changing numbers, our teachers put a lot of effort into educating their students, no matter where they are from or how long they have been here.”