Look at the marching band. Look at the football team. Look at any classroom in the Bremerton school district and odds are you’re likely to see at least one homeless student.
It’s no secret Bremerton has a higher than average number of students from low-income families. In 2012, more than 60 percent of Bremerton students qualified for free or reduced price lunches, a commonly accepted measurement of poverty in schools.
What might come as more of a surprise, is the number of students in Bremerton living without a permanent home. As of last year, 4.5 percent of students attending classes in the Bremerton School District were reported to be homeless.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction released a report Monday detailing an increase of homelessness among students in Washington. It reported 27,390 homeless students in Washington. And according to the report, the number of homeless students in Washington grew by nearly 10,000 from 18,670 in 2008. The report also released statistics based on Washington’s 295 school district boundaries.
The most recent numbers show instances of homelessness continue to climb despite signs of an improving economy.
“The incidences of homeless children in our community has definitely been greater in recent years,” said Larry Eyre, director of Kitsap Community Resources, a nonprofit that partners with social services in Bremerton.
In 2008, Bremerton School District reported 31 homeless students. That placed it 112th among the nearly 300 districts in Washington. By 2012, the number of homeless students in Bremerton had jumped to 227. While the state-wide number grew by 46.7 percent, the number of homeless students in Bremerton grew by more than 600 percent.
The state Superintendent’s report lists reasons for the state-wide increase as varied. Included are job loss, unforeseen illness, increasing housing costs and foreclosures.
Patty Glaser, communications director for Bremerton School District, said part of the reason numbers have increased so greatly is because of changes in the way students are categorized. Students who might not have been counted before, are now.
Changes in reporting help explain state-wide increases, but don’t account for all of the increase seen in Bremerton. As Bremerton’s homelessness has increased at a much higher rate than the rest of Washington, more factors are involved.
Some other small districts, similar in size to Bremerton, have had significant economic factors that caused their numbers to leap, like Shelton, which has suffered from the decline of the lumber industry, one of the area’s primary job sources.
According to Glaser, it’s hard to pin Bremerton’s increase on any single factor.
“Our poverty has continued to grow,” Glaser said. “The number of families that have gone from middle income to where they’re considered homeless — you can’t look at just one reason for why these things are happening.”
While Bremerton ranked 112th of 300 Washington school districts in 2008, it now ranks 33rd. That rank is not per-capita. Bremerton ranks 33rd in the state, despite having only 4,981 students. The significant majority of school districts that ranked higher than Bremerton in homelessness have vastly more students. Only four districts ahead of Bremerton on the list have fewer than 6,000 students.
The school district is required to provide the same access to education to homeless youth as to any other student according to the McKinney-Vento Act, a Federal law. As a school district with a high poverty level, Bremerton receives additional Title I funding from the Federal government. But Glaser said that money only goes so far.
“The Federal money does not cover the total cost for us to educate students based on the high level of poverty we have here,” she said. “Even if we get Federal dollars, we spend more than the Federal dollars that we get.”
Bremerton has a number of programs aimed at low-income and homeless families. It is one of the only districts in the state to offer all-day kindergarten at every one of its elementary schools, and it partners with Kitsap Community Resources to offer pre-school programs for students whose families couldn’t otherwise afford them.
Because of cuts in Title I funding, Glaser said Bremerton can’t afford to operate some of its most beneficial services for low-income families. She said in some cases, the district cut out other programs in an attempt to keep services like before- and after-school programs.
Eyre said at Kitsap Community Resources their funding has stayed relatively stagnant despite the significant increases in local need.
“If you look at recent years, say five years, the amount of funding has essentially been the same,” Eyre said.
Last January, the State Supreme Court ruled in McCleary v. Washington that the state was failing to provide enough money to schools for the education of Washington’s children. While lawmakers in Olympia struggle with the state budget and attempt to increase education funding by as much as $1 billion, districts like Bremerton will be watching the state legislature to see if some form of relief comes.
Even though the state is required to increase education funding, Glaser’s comments remained more reserved than optimistic.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” she said.