The new school year recently started and Children in Transition program coordinator Katie Morales has two calendar and email filled computer screens going on in her new office inside the Sparks High School compound. Other offices next to hers are filled with backpacks and school supplies, while emails are being answered, logistics figured out and phones answered.
Morales, a UNR grad, coordinates other employees who help the thousands of students in homeless situations throughout the Washoe County K-12 school district. “Every day, we’re helping them with birth certificates, shot records, making sure they are getting free or reduced lunches, figuring out transportation, finding out if they need anything else to help with their schooling.”
A Child in Transition in Every Washoe County School
Last year, there was a “child in transition” in every school in the district, Morales says. “We are making sure there are no barriers to a student’s education,” she explains summarizing the 100-percent grant funded program. Children in Transition also gets community help through backpack drives and people helping pay with school fees. “We can always use more support. Backpacks, hygiene supplies, shoes …. School can be expensive. If you want to take an AP class, or be on the soccer team, that can be difficult. People can help with some of those fees.”
Nearly 90% Rise of Students Helped This Decade
Our Town Reno wanted to find out more about some of the current trends, challenges and successes of the Children in Transition program locally.
Q: How many students are you helping?
“Every July first, we re-identify our students and we have definitely seen an increase in students in the last couple of years. We’re continuing to see that right now as well. Last year, we served and identified around 3,500 students and that was an 89% increase in the last six years. We’ll probably see the increase continuing this year as well.”
Q: Within the different definitions of homeless, what are the trends locally?
“Our largest group are those doubled up with another family, due to some type of financial reason. They lost their house, they lost their job, and so now they go live with a family member, or a friend. There are those who live in shelters. In Reno, we have just one family shelter, which has a four month waiting list. There are those who live in other shelters like Safe Embrace. Some families live in a motel. There are also unaccompanied youths. Some might be couch surfing from one friend’s house to the next. There are those who are living in cars, in parks or abandoned buildings. There are also those who are awaiting foster care. But the majority are those who are doubled up with another family. We just don’t have affordable housing for our families to go into. Our shelters are full. Our weeklies are getting expensive. The weeklies are also being bought out and we just don’t have the space for those families to live in on their own. With rising prices, many families are facing difficult situations.”
Q: What kind of Washoe County employees help these students in transition?
“Currently, we have five homeless liaisons. They work with every single school in our district, so around 114 schools. Each liaison has about 30 schools they are working closely with where they have to build relationships with counsellors, front office staff, to make sure we are identifying our students and also giving them the resources they need. Every single school has a school advocate. That person usually is a counselor. They’re working with our families and parents and children who are considered children in transition and they are able to get them the resources they need. Our liaisons work very closely with our advocates to make sure they get transportation, clothing, school supplies, anything that could be a barrier to the student’s education. It takes a village to support our community. Front office staff, they are the ones who are meeting and greeting our families right at the front door. Our principals, our counselors, our teachers, our school nurses, whoever that family has that connection with is helping identify those students. We want to make sure our whole school system has that awareness about what our program is and how they can support our students and really work together to support our families. We make sure they know about us.”
Q: What are the logistics of pick up and drop off for the students you help?
“The students are very transient, living from one place to the next. Our goal is to make sure that they can stay at their school of origin for the time they are homeless or throughout the rest of the school year. It’s important that they have that stability, not only for consistent academics but also having somewhere safe, where they know that they’ll have their friends, teachers they know. We use many ways of transporting our students. It might be through RTC. It might be through school buses. We are always very sensitive of how our students are being transported. Maybe they are the first ones to be picked up. We always want to make sure it’s safe and in their best interest. We have a homeless liaison who is dedicated to transportation only and she is working with our transportation department. She will arrange to transport our students until they get a bus. Washoe County is really big. You never want to see a kindergartner on a bus for two hours, each way. But for a high school student who is about to graduate, that might be in their best interest. We look at individual needs and work closely with each student.”
Q: What is your personal drive to do this type of work?
“We should all have the same opportunity to get an education. It’s a passion for me. I like what I do. We can really support our community. We’ve seen our graduation rates for our CIT students increase about 16 points in four years, that’s incredible. Our children are amazing. This gives them the opportunity to be like any other student. I think that’s what we really stand by. We want to make sure they have that same education like anyone else. We’re always there with a helping hand. If someone wants to help, they can contact us directly or also help a specific school.”
Interview and Photos by Our Town Reno. If you want to help the local Children in Transition program or find out more about their work please also visit http://www.washoeschools.net/Page/810