The St. Johns County School District is expecting a higher headcount among its homeless student population by the end of the school year.
The increase can be blamed on Hurricane Matthew, according to Kim McNickle, the homeless liaison for the district. Post-storm damage to homes displaced 150 students overnight, forcing schools to shoulder the burden of transportation, meals and out-of-classroom costs such as field trips and events.
Until recently, McNickle said the district was holding steady with its numbers and would conclude the year just above the 800 mark, similar to previous reports.
“But so far we’ve identified 687 students. Last year we finished at 807,” she said. “We will probably finish above that this year, now that we’re including the hurricane children.”
Homeless children, as defined by the Federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, are those lacking a fixed and adequate nighttime residence including children living in shelters, motels, vehicles or doubled-up with relatives or friends.
The worst of these cases, said McNickles, tend to be the unaccompanied youths, children living without a legal guardian.
“If those students need something, medical attention or someone to go into a teacher conference, because they don’t have a guardian, they can’t do any of those things,” McNickle said.
The district has tallied 92 unaccompanied youths this year, but the sub-category of homeless students has actually decreased in recent years.
Any number upticks, McNickle said, will most likely reflect the population displaced post-hurricane.
“Most of those families told their schools what was going on,” she said. “So from there we were able to help them.”
The district is in charge of providing transportation, guidance on Medicaid and food stamps and resource recommendations to families of homeless students.
“We try to send them to the right services just so they can go back to their feet,” McNickle said.
Crookshank Elementary, Sebastian Middle and St. Augustine High School currently serve the majority of homeless students, but McNickle said these numbers can change on a daily basis.
“I think a lot of people live in a bubble around here and don’t realize we have kids in tents and hotels and doubled-up in cars and campers,” McNickle said.
Despite misconceptions on homelessness, McNickle said the community has been especially helpful in supporting the district’s ASSIST program, which offsets the costs of student needs.
The financial support garnered through donations provides for homeless and displaced students until the end of the school year. McNickle said she hopes many families will be in the recovery phase by next year and numbers will decrease again.
In light of trying times, the district will roll out its new St. Johns Community Partnership School initiative at two Title I schools to address teacher, student and parent wants and concerns.
Kymberly Cook, the executive director of the Children’s Home Society of Florida in Buckner and North Coastal divisions, said the initiative is designed to target high-need areas within the schools by realigning community resources.
“Based on a needs assessment, the core partners will rally with community partners and raise money to bring additional services to the school,” Cook said.
The needs assessment will be conducted on South Woods Elementary and The Webster School over the next nine months. Cook said anything from additional student meals to expanded reading or mentorship programs could be instituted next year as a result of the assessment.
“And we will address needs as they arise, one at a time,” Cook said, adding later: “That way in cases of extreme situations, like storms or district-wide changes, we can continue to adjust for the students.”