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Absenteeism linked to child homelessness in Palm Beach County

Posted at 9:11 PM, Aug 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-23 21:36:07-04

Palm Beach County Schools have a big problem on their hands: Too many kids missing school.

Last school year, there was an increase in the amount of absences reported at elementary, middle and high schools across the district.

But the driving force behind it may shock you. According to district data, homelessness is among the driving forces for why kids skip too many days of school.

“It’s very expensive to live in Palm Beach County. Our cost of living is one of the highest the state," said Erica Whitfield, a school board member for district 4. “We don’t have enough places for people to go so that’s really on our county to decide if this is an important issue for us. Where do we want people to go when that happens?"

Whitfield has been tracking the data and is in the process of presenting the district's findings to city leaders across the county.

The district has been able to predict a child's chances of graduation by looking at how many days they miss in 8th grade.

"We looked at the kids that just graduated last year. And we looked at whether they were able to graduate on time," she said.

According to the data, for kids that had 0 to 5 absences in 8th grade, they graduated at an 89 percent rate.

"But if kids missed more than 21 days of school in 8th grade, we saw that they were only graduating at a 55 percent rate. So that was a very low number," said Whitfield. "We're trying to get those kids to understand the importance of going to school throughout their time to be able to get those graduation rates up."

Whitfield added that if kids are even missing school in kindergarten, they're more likely to not be reading on grade level by 3rd grade.

Child homelessness and fears of deportation are among the top contributing factors to the high rates of absences. Whitfield said there are about 4,000 children in Palm Beach County that self-reported being homeless or in an insecure living situation.

Click here to read the absenteeism report.

"Some of those kids might report living with an aunt but are not sure they can stay or grandma has taken them in for a little while. We count those kids, too," said Whitfield.

But she added even that number could be underreported.

"People do fall on hard times and they lose that ability to stay in that home," she said. "We try our best to keep them in the same school but as you know, children who are homeless are more likely to be transient...so that may lead to increased absences."

A hot zone for the issue lies in Lake Worth. Whitfield shared the data in last week's city commission meeting.

“All of the problems that the county has -- they are exacerbated in Lake Worth because of the poverty that we have here," said city commissioner Omari Hardy.

Hardy said about 30 percent of the city's population is living at or below the poverty level. As a teacher, he has seen the statistics first hand in his own classroom over the years. He shared the story of a third grader that he didn't know was homeless until she said something.

“I asked her where she was laying her head down at night, she said sometimes in a car sometimes in a hotel when they could afford to," he said. “She’s 9 years old and living in the car and hotels and a church with her family. And that really struck me as something our society should do a better job of eradicating."

Hardy added, “Meanwhile, she’s coming to school every day like everything is OK and she’s working and competing with kids who have a safe place to live and lay their head every night. That really broke my heart and made me more aware of the problem we face in PBC."

Every day, organizations like Above the Sea Soup Kitchen in Lake Worth makes these families are getting a bite to eat.

“Capture their heart through their stomach," joked Patrick Livingston, who runs the kitchen.

Livingston serves hundreds of meals a day for breakfast and lunch and also sees children who should be in school during those hours.

“Families tend to move around like nomads a lot," he said. “It really touches your heart when you see them and you know they need some help. It's difficult to be able to get out there and help them in the way that you'd like to."

The district is in the process of addressing the issue. For one, Whitfield said they have rolled out attendance monitors to keep track of chronic absenteeism.

“They’re going to be calling parents and asking them, 'Why didn’t your student show up today and how can we help you? What can we do to make sure your student comes?'"

There is also a task force with case workers that address homelessness within children in the district. Click here to learn more.

But Hardy believes it will take more than that.

“The state legislature needs to stop taking money out of the Affordable Housing trust fund, which they’ve done every single year since 2003," said Hardy.

He hopes that cities can work with the county to search for more affordable housing for families.

“What we really have to do is ask ourselves, are we doing our best to make sure that children have a fair shot at life?" he said. "When these kids turn 18, they don't just disappear. They become members of our society in full and it's really important that we do our best by them while they're young."