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  1. The Education Gradebook

Homeless students don't always raise their hands for help, so districts work to find them

It's Day 4 of the new school year, and the clamor has quieted. Students are settling into their routines, finding classes, memorizing schedules.

For thousands of them, school may be the most stable part of their day.

In Portable F at Bayside High near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, the seven women who make up the Pinellas County School District's homeless education task force have already started to count: 1,179 homeless students identified in just the first week of school, the highest number in the Tampa Bay area.

If past years are any indication, the number could grow to more than 3,500 by May.

Officials are bracing for an upheaval over the next two weeks in St. Petersburg, where the troubled Mosley Motel is set to close, displacing more than 60 public school students and their families.

Some may cross into Hillsborough County, which has its own team to monitor a homeless student population that rose to more than 3,300 last year.

"A lot of our families are mobile," said Jennifer Gallman, a social worker on the Pinellas team whose voicemail was already full with requests for help during the first week of school. "I'm already working on second moves."

The team's job is to identify homeless students during the school enrollment process and provide them with transportation, free meals, school supplies, college assistance — and support beyond school hours.

When their families move, the teams try to keep them in their "school of origin" by making arrangements to keep busing them there. That consistency can help stabilize the home education environment, said Christina Fields, the Pinellas school district's homeless liaison.

"Our main goal is to make sure our students are in school and attending school," she said.

Students who experience homelessness during their junior or senior year of high school could be eligible for waivers of college application fees and tuition. Pinellas counted 127 homeless seniors last year.

"That's one way you can stop the cycle of poverty," Fields said.

Joyce Cole, 35, has lived at the Mosley Motel for six years. It was the only motel that would take her and her four children: two daughters who are happy at Mount Vernon Elementary and two sons excelling at John Hopkins Middle. Cole's youngest child, Rhianna Oliver, a friendly 6-year-old with a penchant for pink and glitter, started kindergarten late and has several disabilities.

"I want to keep her at the same school because it's going to be a hard time adjusting for her," Cole said after greeting her daughters at the bus stop behind the motel on 33rd Street N. "That's why I'm going to try my hardest to stay in the area. I don't want to disrupt my child's education."

Last year, Mount Vernon, the elementary school zoned for the Mosley Motel, had the second-highest population of homeless students in the district with 91. Maximo Elementary had 92.

"My biggest fear is they go to a different school (that) might not have that homeless population," said Mount Vernon principal Robert Ovalle, who came to the school this year from Campbell Park Elementary, which has the fifth highest homeless student population. "To us, it's part of our DNA because we've always had them."

Social workers at Mount Vernon and other schools throughout the area work much of the summer and the first few weeks of school identifying homeless students, who by federal definition are considered homeless if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. That includes families in hotels and motels, shelters and shared housing — the most common circumstance.

A residency questionnaire, available in English and Spanish, is given to all families during enrollment, and many parents often call the district's homeless team for help. Some homeless teams visit hotels, motels and shelters to assist children.

There is no one community where homeless students cluster.

School district teams find them in extended-stay hotels and motels along the U.S. 19 bus route, sometimes camouflaged in more affluent areas such as Palm Harbor, stretching north into Pasco County. Some live in more rural areas in Zephyrhills. In Hillsborough, many families congregate at the Metropolitan Ministries shelter in Tampa and another shelter in Brandon.

Though Hillsborough has double the overall enrollment, Pinellas has identified more homeless students. But official numbers may hide the extent of the problem in Hillsborough, said Flossie Parsley, a coordinator for Hills-borough's school social work services. As many as 10 percent of the students who receive free and reduced lunches could be homeless, with many of them not counted, she said.

"Around the state we've always been told that we're not identifying at the rate that we should be," she said. "Our numbers are probably really low."

Still, Hillsborough's numbers have steadily increased, which Parsley says is due to the district identifying the reasons behind homelessness and opening the lines of communication so families step forward to seek help.

Reducing the stigma of homelessness is, after all, part of the homeless assistance team's goal.

"I don't feel like the lone ranger voice saying, 'We need to think about all these things,' " Parsley said. "I think people are more open to the conversation."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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