There are close to 16,000 homeless students in the state of Utah, including thousands in the Alpine School District (ASD). These preschool to high school-age children and youth are living doubled up with other families in small houses or apartments, in hotels or motels, homeless shelters, camp trailers, and even cars. A federal program, the McKinney-Vento Assistance Act, removes the educational barriers for homeless students, but identifying those children in need remains a challenge for the ASD.
Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, ASD funded a full-time McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Liaison, Sonia Molina-Openshaw, in the Student Educational Equity Department under Director Analis Ruiz. Students who qualify for McKinney-Vento services work with Molina-Openshaw to enroll in school even if they’re lacking documents normally required, or a legal guardian. Molina-Openshaw arranges transportation to and from the school, clothing and school supplies, waivers for fees related to school-sponsored clubs and sports and arranges for free breakfast and lunch at the school’s cafeteria. As a Homeless Education Liaison, Molina-Openshaw also links children and adults to other federal and state resources to assist in finding employment, housing, and counseling services.
In the McKinney-Vento program, the term “homeless children and youth” means the individual lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. “Children, especially grade school-age, may not even realize they are homeless. Teachers, school counselors, bus drivers, and nurses are often the ones who identify these students. Once the students are identified, administrators complete a Voluntary Student Housing Questionnaire and I begin investigating the situation,” explained Molina-Openshaw. Registrars have been trained to look for red-flag answers on enrollment forms, such as a temporary living situation or lack of immunization records and other necessary documentation. Some of the general warning signs of students in homeless situations are numerous absences, falling asleep in class, hoarding food, wearing the same clothes several days in a row, exhibiting a marked change in behavior, and avoiding questions related to their current address. “It is a miraculous and collaborative effort finding these children,” said Molina-Openshaw.
In the last few months, Sonia Molina-Openshaw has investigated the living situations of many homeless students in the Alpine School District. She has seen a high school girl living at a friend’s home because her father abandoned the girl, her mother, and three siblings. The girl’s living situation was discovered after she had a meltdown in class because she was so hungry. A high school boy who was absent from school many days was found to be living on his own because both his parents are working out of the country. Another young man was living on his own because his single mother passed away in October 2019.
“This is a real thing. It could be your neighbor – it could even be you. Many people are only a paycheck away from being homeless. The amazing thing I’ve seen through this program over the years is that despite their circumstances, some of these kids become so resilient. They overcome, they graduate, they go on to college, they come back as professionals who serve that community that sponsored them,” said Analis Ruiz, Director of Alpine School District’s Student Educational Equity Department. McKinney-Vento services apply to college students as well.
The Student Education Equity Department works with the Alpine School District, and the Alpine School District Foundation to gather donations and funds to help the homeless children in the school district, which includes all of Lehi. To inquire about services for a homeless student in the Alpine School District, call Sonia Molina-Openshaw at 801-599-5354.