Schoolhouse Washington recently awarded an 18-month grant to the Tukwila School District, where 11.5 percent of all students in 2015-16 were identified as homeless, compared to 3.65 percent statewide. We asked Tukwila Superintendent Nancy Coogan about the district’s ongoing work to address student homelessness and how Schoolhouse Washington will enhance those efforts.
Q: The Schoolhouse Washington grant builds on the Tukwila School District’s innovative efforts in the area of student homelessness. What are some indicators of student-level and system-level success thus far?
“We’re proud that we have increased the number of students experiencing homelessness who graduate high school on time. In the 2014-15 school year, the graduation rate was 72 percent. This was impressive for districts with sizable populations of students experiencing homelessness. In the 2015-2016 school year, the graduation rate rose to 75 percent.”
Q: How do you anticipate this grant will enhance and expand the district’s current efforts?
“This grant will help increase district capacity. The district’s McKinney-Vento liaison will be able to provide improved support and training to school-building staff and increase their awareness about issues of student homelessness. This grant will also allow the district to improve system performance by providing tools to track the attendance and academic progress of students experiencing homelessness—and then make adjustments where needed to remove barriers to academic success.”
Q: What are the challenges a school district faces in serving the needs of students experiencing homelessness as well as those precariously housed?
“While our district has done a good job in increasing the aid for food, clothing and holiday gift giving, one of the challenges we face is having a streamlined process that can help families in crisis receive services. This requires proper collaborations to be able to make referrals. This grant will help us build our relationships with programs that can help our students with housing, job readiness and academic success—and make it easier and quicker to refer students to get help.”
Q: What are the specific challenges in making sure the students can be academically successful?
“Students experiencing homelessness need to feel empowered to understand that their circumstances do not prevent them from achieving success. Those of us who support them also must believe that they can succeed as much as anyone else. This involves removing any stigmas associated with student homelessness. This grant will help the district provide necessary professional development to avoid unintentional stereotyping; for example, they are easily labeled as less intelligent, more problematic or unmotivated. We want to remove all labels so that they can be seen as students first.”
Q: As a richly diverse district, Tukwila is uniquely positioned to directly impact the racial and ethnic disproportionality that exists in student homelessness. How does this align with broader goals of the district’s racial equity work?
“The Tukwila School District has created a platform for courageous conversations about racial equity. Our racial equity work makes sure that all students experiencing homelessness, regardless of their race or ethnicity, are able to access all courses offered, extracurricular activities, and services offered to all our students. Students experiencing homelessness are students first. Homelessness is an experience, but it is not their identity.”