Alamosa embraces homeless youth

Though a town of only 8,000, Alamosa has its fair share of homeless youth. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

Students identified as homeless by Alamosa Public Schools have a lot of support.

The district's annual report to the federal government lists 116 students living in shelters, motels, or doubled up with other families. Called the McKinney-Vento Report, the information helps the district remove barriers to enrollment and coordinate services and resources to help kids who face challenges beyond those of their more settled peers.

"At registration, there are a lot of rules and regulations that are removed," said Alamosa Schools Assistant Superintendent Carrie Zimmerman, who oversees administration of state and federal mandates to accommodate homeless students and their families. "We don't have to require immunization, we don't have to know the residence. We waive those like we do for undocumented students. We make it as accessible as possible."

Zimmerman said identifying homeless students can be an issue, because many homeless parents aren't proud to broadcast their situation. The district distributes flyers to different staff to train them to identify and assist kids who may be homeless, such as having teachers keep extra snacks on hand for kids who may have none.

There are a number of ways to recognize homeless students, said Ortega Middle School principal Denise Cordova.

"It's made known when there are issues of gaps in their education, or concerns about hygiene, they're hungry all the time, they're not getting their homework done, or they're not sleeping," said Cordova.

Every school in the Alamosa district has its own McKinney-Vento liaison who can help meet a child's individual needs.

"If a student wants to play basketball or be in the play, or even if there are fees for a class like Home Ec, and they're not able to pay those fees, we do have funds that are set up," said Cordova. "Or if they need things like a backpack, pencils, and paper, we can provide those. Once they go home, there isn't a quiet place for them to do their homework. They might go home to a one-room motel, and there are parents and siblings there, so there's no quiet place. We provide homework time after school. Then we arrange their transportation."

Students ages 5 to 9 can receive individual assistance in the classroom from the Positive Activities Lead to Success, or PALS children's program, part of the La Puente Home network. The program exists to address the rate of child maltreatment in the Valley.

"The common thread is some level of trauma," said PALS director Tim Dellett. "It could be homelessness, abuse or neglect. The issues we see with many of our families are struggles around addiction, mental and physical health issues and domestic violence."

PALS provides liaisons to Alamosa Elementary School classrooms Monday through Thursday, who provide academic support.

"We have lofty goals for our kids, but there are tough realities," said Dellett . "They're at risk for homelessness, incarceration , teenage pregnancy, dropping out of high school, becoming victims or perpetrators of domestic violence or just becoming less than they could be in life. If we can provide them with other life options and broaden their horizons, and provide them with an emotional place inside themselves, they'll take that through their lives."

The number of homeless students seems to be on the rise, said Dellett.

"There have been historical increases in recent months, but I'm not sure why," Dellett said. "I'm sure the reasons are many. They're just kids and they have the same needs any child does. A lot of that pain and trauma is kept internal. I don't think kids get enough credit for their strength and resiliency. Kids who face these challenges, they're just like other kids. They have hopes and dreams."

The support provided depends on the child, said Kelsey Ballard, one of the PALS liaisons. "We might go in and sit with them while they're doing their math lesson, and help them stay on task and focused," said Ballard. "If they have a meltdown, we can take them out of the classroom to calm down. People might think that the PALS kids might be the worst in the class, but a good chunk are the hardest workers in their classes."

Support can also extend to transportation to other districts.

"If a student started out at Center, and they moved to one of the motels in Alamosa, but they were thriving in Center and the parents don't want to move them from there, we have resources that will bus the student from here back to Center so they don't have gaps in their education," said Cordova.

The bottom line is that homeless students are still just students, said Cordova.

"We have to nurture and bring up all our kids, McKinney-Vento or not," said Cordova. "They have the same capabilities to learn as any other student. They need that opportunity to learn. We need to challenge them the same as all our other students. We provide a level of rigor for all of our students, while being mindful of their personal needs. We want kids to be kids at school and not have to worry about adult issues."