Portland's homeless student population declines for 2nd year in a row

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PORTLAND — The number of homeless students in the state’s largest school district is down 29 percent this year, according to the Maine Department of Education.

But according to Sharon Pray, director of student support services for the Portland Public Schools, those numbers are “outside of (the district’s) control” and highly unpredictable.

“I think it’s the way numbers fell,” Pray said this week. “It depends on the families moving into the district and if they have students who are school-aged or not.”

Samantha Warren, communications director for the MDOE, said there were 284 homeless students in Portland Public Schools in 2013. In 2014, the population was 251. She said the number for this year are still being finalized, but as of late March it stood at 179.

Pray said there are typically three categories of homeless students in the city’s schools.

The first includes students already living in the district who become homeless, and Pray said they typically remain in their current schools. A second group includes students who come from another state or country and are placed into a district school. The third group includes students who come from neighboring towns and cities into Portland, and often remain at their current schools.

“If they do come to us from a close-by district and we’re able to transport them back and forth we do, which is nice because it doesn’t disrupt learning,” Pray said. She added the cost is split equally between the two districts, and transportation time is kept to an hour or less each way.

All these groups are covered under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides federal money for homeless shelter programs and promises the same access to public education for all its students. Pray said a large number of families with students go through the Family Shelter Center at 55 Chestnut St.

Since 2012, Warren said, MDOE has been much more proactive “in working with local districts to educate them about what homelessness looks like and how to identify students who are homeless, so we can get them the supports they need to be successful in school and beyond.”

She said in the 2012-2103 year, there were 2,070 students identified across the state. The following the number dropped to 1,962.

Portland’s drop-off this year comes on the heels of a dramatic increase in South Portland, where the homeless student population doubled in the past two years to more than 100.

Pray said it is challenging to predict what the numbers will be year in and year out, and typically she will look at the previous year’s numbers to anticipate the current year’s needs.

Warren said in Maine and across the nation, the number of homeless students has been trending higher. However, she said minor fluctuations can as likely be attributed to “identification and reporting, as they can to the numbers of homeless students.”

Pray said because of proximity to the Family Shelter Center, incoming homeless elementary school children are generally sent to either Reiche, Ocean Avenue or the East End Community schools. If a student from another of the district’s elementary schools becomes homeless, his or her parents can choose to keep them at their current school instead of switching.

She said placement is generally based on enrollment: if a first-grade student needs placement, and Reiche already has a high number of first-graders, but East End is low, that student will likely go to East End.

Pray said King is the first-choice middle school, again because of proximity, ahead of Lincoln and Lyman Moore.

Homeless high school students can choose between Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools, just like any other district student. She also said the School Department typically doesn’t hire additional staff for homeless students “unless we absolutely have to.”

She said instances of homeless students with severe disability who may need an educational technician are rare. Typically, students are absorbed into existing classroom structures.

“We’re always able to accommodate students without great deal of additional cost,” Pray said, “(so) 179 hasn’t been a negative impact on us.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.