The Frederick County Board of Education accepted nearly $158,000 in grant funding Wednesday to identify and aid students experiencing homelessness.
The pandemic — and the prolonged school closures that came along with it — has made it difficult for school systems across the country to get an accurate count of their homeless population. On paper, 705 students across Frederick County Public Schools are currently considered homeless.
But officials suspect that’s an underestimate.
Economic hardship sparked by the pandemic almost certainly made some students newly homeless, said Keri-Ann Henson, FCPS’ homeless program administrator — but virtual schooling made it difficult for the district to identify them. Plus, she said, without in-person instruction, staff were more likely to lose touch with the homeless students they’d been tracking.
“As much as the schools did outreach and tried to keep connections going, it didn’t always happen,” Henson said.
With the grant money, which came as part of the American Rescue Plan, FCPS plans to hire a coordinator responsible for identifying homeless students and connecting them to services. The new hire will help carry out the promises of the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law that ensures homeless students receive transportation to and from school, free meals, hygiene products and more.
The McKinney-Vento Act has a broader definition of homelessness than the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does, Henson said. While a student who is staying with friends or relatives might not qualify for HUD services, they’re counted under McKinney-Vento.
McKinney-Vento liaisons at each school coordinate transportation and support services for those students.
“Maybe they’re staying with grandma for two weeks, and then they have to stay with an aunt for three weeks,” Henson said. “We still want those students to have continuity in their education, so we provide transportation to those students regardless of where their nighttime residence is.”
Henson said the new, part-time coordinator — who she hopes will start in January — would work to identify students experiencing housing instability and make community members aware of the aid they’re entitled to.
Because many people lost their housing for the first time as a result of the pandemic, she said, some families experiencing homelessness in the county are likely unaware of McKinney-Vento services.
“There are probably more families out there, and maybe families who aren’t used to accessing services and resources,” she said. “So they wouldn’t necessarily even have heard or considered themselves protected under the McKinney-Vento Act.”
An even larger chunk of the grant is going toward bolstering FCPS’ partnership with the Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership, a nonprofit that provides material and academic support to homeless students.
In 2021, McKinney-Vento students in FCPS had a graduation rate of 65 percent — nearly 30 points lower than the systemwide rate of 91 percent. SHIP’s New Horizons program aims to change that, said acting Executive Director Melissa Muntz, by offering tutoring, health screenings, legal services and more to homeless high schoolers.
The grant money will allow the New Horizons program to jump from two case managers to four, Muntz said. Currently, the program is only offered in six of the county’s 10 schools, but Muntz is hopeful the new staff will allow it to expand. At least one of the new case managers will be fluent in Spanish, Muntz added.
“We are looking forward to the expanded capacity,” she said. “We’re really looking forward to being able to serve more of our Spanish speaking community.”
The pandemic hampered SHIP’s operations, too. In addition to running the New Horizons program, the group coordinates donations for homeless students and runs a network of volunteers who can provide stable temporary housing.
But without face-to-face interaction with students, it became harder for SHIP staff to figure out how they could help.
When case managers sit across from a student, for instance, they’ll likely notice if the child has holes in their shoes. But during a virtual meeting, a student expressing their need for food and shelter might well forget to mention that they also need new sneakers.
“It wasn’t just a matter of identifying and reaching the students,” she said. “It was also a matter of identifying their needs.”
Now that case managers are back with students, Muntz said, SHIP is seeing a sharp rise in requests for material items like clothing and school supplies.
“This is a tough time for so many people and so many groups,” she said. “So to see some attention being paid to this is really wonderful for us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of FCPS students currently counted as homeless. It has been updated.