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Tigard-Tualatin School District homeless students face transit barriers

District working to increase transportation resources

TIMES FILE PHOTO - The number of homeless students in the Tigard-Tualatin School District using special transit services has been on the rise.More and more students in the Tigard-Tualatin School District are becoming homeless. They’re staying in shelters, living in motels, sleeping on couches and floors. That means more of them are struggling to find a way to get to school.

Over the last five school years, there’s been a 350 percent increase in the number of homeless students using district-approved transportation services, according to numbers presented by Chief Financial Officer David Moore at a recent Tigard-Tualatin School District board meeting.

During the 2015-16 school year, 143 homeless students in the district used transportation services, which range from special routes on regular school buses to contracts with cab companies. That’s up from 41 students during the 2011-12 school year. And the numbers have been climbing each year.

“It’s a really critical phenomenon that we’re dealing with,” said board member Barry Albertson. “I should be surprised at it, but I’m not.”

At the June 27 meeting, the board voted to amend the upper limit of its annual contract with one of the two cab companies it contracts with, In Transit Transportation Services, from $210,000 to $250,000. In Transit is the primary provider of rides to students who live out of district, though about 70 percent of the total students it serves live in-district.

The state of Oregon allows Type 10-approved drivers, who go through background checks and are regulated like school bus drivers, to transport students in passenger vehicles.

What began as a $100,000 contract in 2011 with In Transit can no longer accommodate the number of students who need the service, said board members. Last year, In Transit transported 45 students on a daily basis using four vehicles.

Later this summer, the board will begin a cost analysis of transit routes to see if in-house hiring solutions can help defray the costs of getting students to school.

But the district has already begun using its transportation resources to support community programs for homeless children.

At the Good Neighbor Center in Tigard, homeless students are engaged in a 10-week summer school program, working on their reading, math and art through classroom lessons and field trips. The shelter houses nine families with children at a time.

The program is possible in part because Tigard-Tualatin School District donated the use of a school bus and a classroom in nearby Metzger Elementary School, said the shelter’s Children’s Program Coordinator, Catherine Harris.

“We try to help kids avoid the summer slip,” said Harris.

She said that while there is only so much the program can do to address the achievement gap that homeless students face, kids still benefit.

“When they work on their literacy and math, kids become a lot more confident,” she said.

During the school year, Harris sees families at the shelter using services such as TriMet and cabs to get their kids to school, as well as shelter-provided gas cards for their own vehicles. But most students are picked up by a regular school bus which stops at the Good Neighbor Center.

“Getting kids onto a regular school bus is the goal” because that helps homeless students integrate with their peers, said Katrina Tompkins, the district’s transportation manager. But in many cases, homeless students live far from bus routes, or even outside the district’s boundaries.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law guaranteeing homeless students certain protections, students have the right to attend their school of origin, even when their living situation changes.

“The homeless population is very fluid,” said Tompkins. “They’re living with other family members, in shelters, motels, any kind of living situation you can think of.”

The increase in homeless students isn’t limited to the Tigard-Tualatin School District. Homelessness among students in Washington County has been on the rise for years. During the 2014-15 school year, 2,100 students across the county were listed as homeless. According to county data, 188 of them were in the Tigard-Tualatin School District.

“The overarching problem, and the number one reason there’s been a rise is, the vacancy rates (for homes and apartments) in the Portland metro area are at an all-time low,” said Jack Schwab, executive director of the Good Neighbor Center. “You cannot get an apartment at a reasonable rent.”

Schwab emphasized that as the transportation needs of students differ, so do the situations of their families.

“Every family has its own history,” said Schwab.