Students without homes find help within district

Posted: Monday, October 16, 2006

It isn’t a student’s passing or non-passing grades that first attracts the attention of Jennifer Reinhart. It’s whether or not a student has a home and what kind of shape that home is in. As the homeless liaison for schools in the southern Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Reinhart, a 1990 graduate of Homer High School, focuses her skill on meeting the needs of students in transition.

The kindergarten through high school students with whom Reinhart comes in contact may be living with their families in vehicles or campers. They may have a roof over their heads, but the structure supporting the roof verges on collapse. Unable to locate or afford housing, families can find themselves relying on the hospitality of others. Situations involving domestic violence may mean living in a shelter.

When dealing with runaway children, Reinhart faces varying scenarios. Some students couch surf, moving from one location to another. Others have been abandoned by a parent or guardian and find themselves in unstable conditions.

No matter the situation in a student’s personal life, Reinhart’s goal is to create an atmosphere for educational success by ensuring a consistent and uninterrupted learning environment.

“It’s good to keep kids in the same school for the whole year,” said Reinhart, who has a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and is working toward a master of arts in teaching through the University of Alaska Southeast. “Keeping continuity is really important.”

The program provides tutoring, transportation assistance to help students stay in the same school throughout the year, school supplies and pays fees and assistance in obtaining birth certificates and other documents required for school enrollment.

In addition, Reinhart identifies if appropriate winter clothing is needed and helps provide it.

“And laundry and shower cards really are important,” she said.

Although referrals to the program can be made by anyone, they most frequently originate from schools and social service agencies.

Reinhart is based in Paul Banks Elementary School, but her responsibilities have her traveling to schools from Ninilchik south.

“I look at the family and its structure and try to establish relationships,” Reinhart said.

Beginning in 2004, KPBSD had one full and one half-time position in the Homeless/Students in Transition program. Karen Ruebsamen works full-time with students in schools north of Ninilchik, while Reinhart’s half-time position addresses the needs of students from Ninilchik south. Funding for this district program comes from a combination of Title I money and a supplemental grant.

Districtwide during the 2005-06 school year, 107 students were unsheltered, meaning they lived in campgrounds, cars, parks, in substandard housing or were couch-surfing. The second highest number, 106, were doubling up with friends or relatives. Seventeen lived in shelters, 12 lived in hotels or motels and four were in emergency foster care.

Skyview High School in Soldotna had the most students in transition, 19. In the southern Kenai Peninsula, Homer High School had the most, with 18 students in transition

So far this school year, 70 students have enrolled in the program districtwide.

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