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West Allis reports big jump in number of homeless students

Jan. 29, 2013

West Allis - The biggest demographic change in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District continues to be the explosion in the number of homeless students.

In a report this week to the School Board, Dan Weast, student services director, said over the past five years the number of homeless students has risen 87 percent - from 60 students in 2008-09 to 112 this school year.

The schools have been dealing with the problem for a long time. The percentage of disadvantaged students has risen 12 years in a row, Weast said.

Shocking rise

The number of homeless students exploded in the 2010-11 school year, when the number jumped 34 percent to 102 from 76 a year earlier. It shot up another 35 percent last year to 138.

And there are indications that the total of homeless children might hit a record 180 by the end of the school year, Weast said.

At least one board member acknowledged those numbers' shock value, despite the fact that the school district is aware of the problem and has tools in place to educate such students.

"Most people are shocked and amazed when they hear that homeless number," Board President Sue Stalewski said.

As far as school officials know, the students don't live in cars or parks. Rather, they live in shelters or their families live with other families, Weast said.

The increased homelessness is an aspect of the higher rate of poverty West Allis school officials are finding.

Measuring homelessness

Using the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, Weast presented data showing the majority of district students are economically disadvantaged. More specifically, West Allis Central High School, all three intermediate schools and seven of the 11 elementary schools now have a majority of students from economically disadvantaged homes.

The nearly 59 percent of the student body who qualifies under that measure is far greater than the roughly 22 percent who could be categorized as disadvantaged 13 years ago.

The last time the number of economically disadvantaged students was less than half the student body was in the 2009-10 school year.

Tempering some of that increase is that the schools are better now at collecting data indicating economic disadvantages, Stalewski said.

Balanced on the other side is the suspicion that the actual number of students coming from disadvantaged homes is probably higher than 59 percent, Weast said.

"These are only the families that have come forward to apply" for free and reduced-priced lunches, he said, noting that same families may be too embarrassed or don't want their children to be different from the other kids.

Helping hands

With the help of a state grant, the schools have had a full-time person as of last year to help families and the schools deal with the challenges of homelessness and getting an education.

To help students from disadvantaged homes and homeless children, the district has a breakfast program, has low-cost recreation and after school programs, a summer food program, scholarships, parenting and nurturing classes, special events such as the Holiday Gift Experience, helps families access community agencies providing help and adult literacy, Weast said.

And that is just a sample of what the district does, he said.

AT A GLANCE

The percentage of West Allis-West Milwaukee School District students from economically disadvantaged homes in 2012-13, according to district statistics:

High schools

West Allis Central High School - 69 percent

Nathan Hale High School - 39 percent

Alternative Learning Center - 91 percent

Shared Journey, the charter school for pregnant and parenting teens - 100 percent

Intermediate schools

West Milwaukee Intermediate - 82 percent

Lincoln Intermediate - 67 percent

Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate, 52 percent.

Elementary schools

Horace Mann - 84 percent

Pershing Elementary - 78 percent

Franklin Elementary - 72 percent

Longfellow - 71 percent

Jefferson - 67 percent

Wilson - 62 percent

Walker - 51 percent

Irving - 47 percent

Hoover - 45 percent

Madison - 43 percent

Mitchell - 41 percent

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