Houston school board to hire liaison for homeless students

jmink@macon.comNovember 13, 2012 

PERRY -- In an effort to offer the same services to all homeless students, Houston County schools will hire someone to work specifically with the district’s homeless population.

The Houston Board of Education approved the homeless liaison position during its meeting Tuesday. The liaison will work in the district’s new central registration office, where all parents will register their children instead of going to each individual school. The office opens in January near Warner Robins High School, and officials plan to have the position filled by then.

Currently, an employee at each school is designated to work with homeless students, but officials wanted to offer the same assistance to all homeless families at a central location.

“This way we’ll be able to, at the very beginning, understand the families’ needs,” Jennifer Birdsong, director of Title I and remedial services, said in an interview after the meeting.

At the end of last school year, 433 Houston County students were considered homeless. So far this year, about 200 are homeless, but officials expect that number to hit 400 to 500 by the end of the academic year. That’s about average for the past few years, Birdsong said. Houston County has 27,610 students.

Children who live on the streets and in shelters are not the only students who are considered homeless. Those who live in hotels, recreation vehicles and in one residence with multiple families also qualify as homeless, said Mark Scott, assistant superintendent of human resources.

The majority of Houston County’s homeless students live in a home with two or more families, Birdsong said.

“We have more and more families doubling up,” Scott said after the meeting. “And there are issues as to what schools they attend.”

Homeless students are not required to change schools when they move from place to place. Some parents opt to change schools when they move, but others don’t, and the district must provide transportation to students no matter where they are staying.

“The people (at the new central registration office) are more equipped to deal with it,” Scott said. “And of course, it’s sensitive in nature.”

Homeless parents and students might be more comfortable getting assistance away from their schools, so “they have a fresh start at their schools,” Scott said.

The district snagged a three-year, federal Education for Homeless Children and Youths grant, which will fund the position.

The district received about $35,000 for the first year, which will cover salary costs and fund further assistance for homeless families, such as help with the cost of immunizations and new backpacks for all children, Birdsong said.

The new position requires the homeless liaison to identify and enroll homeless students, maintain student records and files, assist families, promote school and community awareness of homeless issues and ensure local compliance with state and federal homeless laws.

“It’s all about (providing) services to make sure their needs are met,” Scott said.

Hill’s last meeting

Board members jokingly handed Toby Hill a wooden soapbox to stand on during his last meeting. After eight years as a board member, Hill did not seek re-election and will be replaced by Dave McMahan in January.

“Toby’s been a lifelong supporter of education,” Superintendent Robin Hines said. “He will certainly be missed by this board.”

Hill has been an educator for the past 46 years. He has been superintendent of Crawford County schools and has held several positions at Houston County schools. He still teaches part time at Georgia Military College.

“This board should take some amount of pride in its ability to work without an agenda,” he said. “I really believe everybody on this board is a public servant.”

Also at the meeting, the board:

• Approved the purchase of 15 new buses;

• Approved an agreement for annexation and city services for utilities at the new elementary school on Langston Road;

• Approved a policy revision to allow employees to request professional leave online;

• Approved a new student services technology specialist position; and

• Approved board member Skip Dawkins to travel with the Georgia School Boards Association to a public schools conference in Washington, D.C.

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