Grant application approved for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Project

Nancy Thrower of District 4 listens during a meeting of the Marion County Public School Board at the MTI auditorium in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted June 24, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler

Students who are impacted by homelessness or housing uncertainty could potentially be benefitted by the grant application approved by the Marion County School Board on Tuesday.

MCSB has just given the green flag for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Project to continue for a second year, and if the grant is approved it could appropriate over $157,000 of Title IX funds for the 2022-2023 school year to reasonably quickly to students experiencing homelessness.

“We do have significant pockets of homeless populations,” said Board Member Nancy Thrower. “More than probably the community would ever be aware of, we have children that are growing up in pretty tough circumstances.”

This year’s grant application sees a measurable increase from the 2021-2022 financial year’s budget of $120,000. This increase of $37,000 could potentially be allotted towards services and resources promoting participation in school, academic achievement and regular school attendance by students experiencing homelessness.

The project specifically seeks to address improving the graduation rate of students who experience homelessness throughout their educational career, filling in the gaps in learning caused by homelessness, and raising awareness for the McKinney-Vento Act (MVA) within the community.

MVA has been a game changer for students who face housing uncertainty, because in the case that they find themselves homeless, the act not only provides students with transportation, but also helps give them the emotional stability necessary to succeed in school, said Thrower.

“We would continue to provide bus transportation for those students so they could stay at the school where they were, where, you know, where relationships have been formed and keeping the same teacher especially with our younger students and our youngest students in elementary school,” Thrower said. “The school system tries to provide that net of stability and support in very uncertain circumstances for our kids.”

The grant will allow for two social work assistants to be hired, who will be assigned to work at Marion Technical Institute, Belleview, Dunnellon, Forest, Lake Weir, North Marion, Vanguard and West Port High Schools. They will work closely with school staff to identify students who fall into the category of homelessness and create plans to benefit their likelihood of graduation.

The project largely seeks to improve the language skills of students who may have missed crucial checkpoints in reading and speech development due to their housing circumstances.

“To increase English Language Arts scores of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8, mastery of ELA standards is monitored throughout the year. MVA training is provided to increase the identification of homelessness resulting in more students being enrolled and their needs being met,” according to MCPS.

While identifying students who may be categorized as homeless is the first step, it is often difficult to identify homelessness among disadvantaged students. The Ocala/Marion Joint Office of Homeless Prevention conducts an annual “Point in Time” count, a survey that assesses the number of homeless people living in shelter facilities and living unsheltered, and includes unaccompanied and homeless youth.

The PIT count conducted in January of 2021 found that 101 total people under the age of 18 were living as homeless, either in emergency or transitional shelters or unsheltered completely. The total number of persons in all age ranges totaled 512.

This is what makes MVA training so crucial, so that students such as these who are living in high-risk circumstances may be identified in the first place to receive the necessary support and referrals to community programs such as the Ocala/Marion Joint Office of Homeless Prevention.

The MVA training that the funding allows would “provide individuals an understanding of the law requirements and clarifies the stereotypical definition of homelessness and its causes,” according to MCPS.

The grant budget period will last for the duration of July 1, 2022, through June 30, 2023, and the motion to approve the application was passed unanimously by all school board members. Board Member Don Browning pulled the item for discussion and offered his support and enthusiasm for the project to continue once the grant is approved.

“This is a real category, with real children and these are the lowest protected humans past their birth,” Browning said. “As far as I’m concerned, if they don’t have a home, your home is where all your growth and power and security comes from.”

Browning commended the local organizations making efforts to protect children affected by homelessness and thanked the district for recognizing the issues that afflict the students that are impacted by uncertain housing circumstances.

“Home is where security is and it’s a beautiful thing,” said Browning. “I couldn’t abide this [being passed] as a bulk agenda item without being recognized, along with the whole community being recognized for what we do and how much we care for putting a child in the best possible circumstance we can.”