By Jack Minch
LEOMINSTER -- The number of homeless children has risen across the state in recent years, with as many as 148 from Greater Boston who are being temporarily housed in Leominster motels and going to public schools without financial support from the state.
The state is running low on motel accommodations in the Boston region, so it's sending families to other communities, including Leominster.
"They are coming farther west, and we've had the Motel 6 and Super 8 in the area, so it has provided opportunities for the state to place families," said Schools Superintendent James Jolicoeur.
The rising numbers have drawn attention from residents, who sympathize with the children but are concerned how the additional students are affecting the education system, Jolicoeur said.
"They are members of the community, and I've taken the stance and perspective they are members of our community, and we're going to service them," Jolicoeur said.
Jolicoeur said he has been working with Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, D-Leominster, and Rep. Dennis Rosa, D-Worcester, looking for financial help from the state, but so far they haven't been able to get funding.
Rosa was surprised to learn there are so many homeless children in the school system who are from other regions of the state.
Rosa said he spoke to Mayor Dean Mazzarella and Flanagan a few weeks ago, when there were still only 85 homeless students in the city.
He spoke to Jolicoeur Tuesday about the need for financial help to maintain the School Department's levels of service for students.
The homeless children are coming to the district, which means there are fewer students from other school districts who can pay to attend Leominster schools as part of school choice, Rosa said.
"It would only seem fair that we would get some kind of reimbursement," Rosa said. "There are a lot of ramifications we didn't expect."
Rosa said he plans to contact Flanagan on Monday to resume conversations about alternative funding methods for homeless students.
The city could have done a better job preparing if it had some warning there would be an influx of students, Mazzarella said.
There hasn't been any funding following the children from their home districts, but admittedly officials have been more focused on making sure services are available rather than tracking the money, he said.
"At least they are in a safe environment and have a school to go to," he said.
The increased numbers don't add a tremendous strain on the general academic picture but they are increasing class sizes, which takes a toll on staff and administrators who manage the schools, Jolicoeur said.
The constant moving and cramming entire families into single rooms in motels puts strains on the students, who develop emotional and behavioral issues, he said.
"That is what has really put the strain on the school district, because there are a lot more of the psychological type services and behavioral issues we have to deal with," Jolicoeur said.
There were 95 homeless students in Leominster during the 2010-2011 school year, whether they were staying in motels or elsewhere, said DESE spokesman JC Considine.
That number grew to 155 students in the 2011-2012 school year
There have been as many as 148 homeless students during the current school year, Considine said.
Statewide the numbers have grown steadily from 14,247 homeless students in the 2010-2011 school year to 15,812 this year.
"We have seen an increase in the numbers this fall and are working closely with the Department of Housing and Community Development on this matter," Considine said in an email. "We appreciate the efforts that school superintendents are making to address this challenging situation and to accommodate these students."
Jolicoeur has made some outreach efforts to find clothing and food for the students who often have very little of either.
Administrators, teachers and public officials including Rosa served a special Thanksgiving dinner for homeless students and their families at Leominster High School Wednesday.
Fitchburg has 215 to 245 homeless students now but that is far less than the 378 at the end of the last school year, said Kathleen Niemi, the district homeless liaison.
Niemi said about 75 percent of homeless students stay with relatives or friends.
"They might be sleeping on cots, on floors or sofas," she said. "You have to give the kids credit; they want to finish their education."
About 25 percent live in shelters or motels, including Leominster motels, Niemi said.
The Fitchburg schools work with such agencies as the Montachusett Interfaith Hospitality Network, Our Father's House and Devens Transitional Housing.
"I think Fitchburg schools have done a real good job rising to the occasion to meet the needs of our students," Niemi said.
To create some stability in their lives, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act allows formerly homeless students who are put up in a different community to continue attending their home schools if the ride is less than an hour.
Fitchburg splits the cost of transportation with Leominster under requirements of the law, Niemi said.
Fitchburg has a similar arrangement to split transportation costs for Worcester students who are living in Fitchburg during medical evaluations for residential programs, she said.
In 2011, State Auditor Suzanne Bump said a homeless student's home community should share transportation costs with the host community and that home communities should pay for educating homeless children who no longer lived in the community.
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