For the 2018-19 school year, Forsyth County Schools announced enrollment numbers of more than 48,000 students, continuing a trend of growth that has been seen in the county for years.
But according to some within the school system and the county, with that growth comes an increasing demographic that is rarely seen or thought about in the outside world — homeless students.
According to Amy Chang, the Title I director for Forsyth County Schools, each year the school system registers hundreds of students that are living in fragile, unsheltered and temporary residences.
"At the same time as our school system is growing, typically we see between 1 and 1.5 percent of our school population that will qualify for help,” Chang said. “The numbers are higher at this point in time than they have ever been before, but so has our growth.”
So far this year the school system has qualified 325 homeless students, which Kim Bolivar, the Homeless Education Liaison for Forsyth County Schools, said is about 30 percent higher than previous years. Bolivar said that in the past month they were shocked to realize that they had qualified over half of the total homeless student population that was registered in the previous school year.
“We knew that our numbers would go back up, we just never thought that we would hit 65 percent of last year’s numbers within the first month of school,” Bolivar said.
According to Bolivar, through the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law that defines how the educational system works with homeless students, the school system can combat rising numbers of homeless families in need by providing students support and resources to them get back on track.
"Often times they are families who have had a financial set-back, a hardship, a mom or a dad that recently became single, and due to economic hardship they have to get back on their feet." Bolivar said.
Under McKinney-Vento, homeless students and their families are classified into four categories that include; unsheltered families living in a vehicle, tent or campground; families living in hotels or motels due to lack of an affordable alternative; families living in shelters; and families that are living doubled up in another family’s residence.
Typically, Bolivar said that about 80 percent of the students that are qualified for the program, county and state-wide, are in the last situation, living doubled up in a tenuous situation.
“By doubled up, I mean that a family is living in a small room, they have no legal rights to the home and the welcome mat often wears out,” Bolivar said. “They can be asked to leave at any time, it could be at four in the morning, it could be seven in the morning.”
"These families are not doubled-up for cultural or efficiency reasons but because they cannot find housing on their own financially," Chang said.
Breaking through barriers
Each year, the school system starts at zero students qualified for the program and over the year staff members visit homes and talk with parents or guardians to register homeless students for the program.
These students are identified by the school system when they register or are referred to Bolivar’s office by different places in the community.
But if a student is somehow overlooked by those methods, she said that every single staff member in the system from bus drivers and custodians to administrators and staff at Forsyth County Schools headquarters are trained to identify students that might be homeless.
"We want to make sure that any student that could potentially be in a situation where they are going through a transition that we can provide school stability and resources," Chang said.
Once students are qualified for the program, they are eligible for a wealth of support and resources to stay in their school during transitions, tutoring services for educational gaps, supplies, and post-graduation resources and counseling.
Bolivar said that one key thing the program does is it allows homeless students to immediately enroll for school, regardless of the paperwork that their parents might be missing.
“A lot of families that are going through a transition are missing documents required for enrollment ... we don’t want kids sitting out of school for four to six to eight weeks because their parents didn't have a lease, they didn't have certain things,” Bolivar said. “… So we break through the barriers to enrollment, and then we also help families who need assistance by connecting them with community resources.”
Looking to help
Bolivar said they have found that homeless families transition about four to six times a year, and each move will impact the student’s progress and effectiveness.
"Every time a student moves, they lose four to six months of forward academic progress statistically," Bolivar said. "Let’s just say that my child goes ahead and moves from one school to the next. She has to learn a whole new school culture. She's got to learn a new school system and routine, a new classroom teacher, all the rules, meet new friends, and so all those things that are academic and social-emotional cause students to lose that forward progress.”
That is why the school system tries to keep qualified students at the same school through those transitions, and if a school change has to happen, trained tutors are available to fill in the gaps of lost content experience. Little over a month into the school year, they say that several families have already transitioned.
Chang said that they are often asked by members of the community how people can help or get involved, and they happily direct people to one of many local options.
The first and easiest way to give locally, she said, is a site that was founded by a former Forsyth County Homeless Liaison called purposity.com.
Purposity, a mixture of purpose and generosity, gives registered users a weekly update on what is needed in the homeless community, like clothes, bedding or school supplies, and provides links to buy the items and send it out to the school system or local charities with the click of a button.
"It’s just the tangible needs that people have," Chang said. "Honestly sometimes when I go on it, I have to hurry up and buy immediately because so many people are so generous in our community that a lot of the needs are met."
"It’s a great, easy way for people to help," Bolivar said. "People are always looking for ways to add to their community and educate their children about how to help others ... and Purposity is great because they know that it does stay here.”
Chang said that from what they see and hear from their families and community partners, the issue of homeless students is tied to the lack of affordable housing options in the community. Without a solution, the situation won’t get better, they say.
"If that continues to be a problem in our county, then yes, we are going to keep seeing our numbers increase," Chang said.
Until then, Chang said they will continue to work towards breaking families out of the cycle of homelessness and helping them achieve a sustainable lifestyle.