No child should have to spend the night in a motel, the backseat of a car or worry they may have no place to go when the school day ends. Yet those are daily concerns for an astounding number of Pinellas County students. St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell has made a smart push to provide more options for those kids at a handful of public schools in the city, and it should not be too difficult to move from concept to action.
Kornell’s proposal, informed by his experiences as a school social worker, aims to better secure housing for homeless students in the school system. More than 4 percent of the Pinellas School District’s 101,000 students -- 4,372 -- were considered homeless during the last school year. Kornell wants to create an experimental program that focuses on seven Pinellas schools with a high portion of poor families, such as Campbell Park and Fairmount Park elementary schools. The city would dedicate money to hire a coordinator who could manage the program and work with families to navigate the bureaucratic housing system. That would ideally get them placed in housing far sooner than if they search for help on their own.
Nothing shows the need for a program like this more than the numbers. More than 10 percent of students were considered homeless last school year at five of the seven schools that would be the focus of the experiment. Topping the charts, about 18 percent of students at Maximo Elementary—or 93 of 519 students—were defined as homeless last school year. That means these students were either coming home to a shelter, a hotel or motel, sharing housing with large numbers of people or living in an abandoned building, a park or a public space.
Besides making life difficult outside school, being homeless affects students’ academic performance. One study of Florida students found homeless students less frequently passed English Language Arts, math and science tests than other students who receive free or reduced lunch and those who received full price lunch. These children deserve an opportunity at academic success just as much as students lucky enough to have been born into a family with the ability to secure and retain a permanent home.
A City Council committee this week recommended allocating $275,000 of city money to the Pinellas County Homeless Leadership Board. The homeless board would then use $25,000 of those funds to request proposals from organizations interested in providing the help Kornell envisions. The full City Council should approve this modest investment in tackling a significant problem, and if the program is successful it can be expanded later to more schools.
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