By NANCY COOGAN
Superintendent, Tukwila School District
Homelessness is a significant issue in the Tukwila School District, and I really appreciate the Tukwila Reporter — and all of you reading this issue — taking the time to understand what’s happening with our most vulnerable students. First, let’s all take a minute to recalibrate our image of “homelessness.” We might all be just one medical bill, emergency, or legal proceeding away from losing the roof over our heads. We might all one day find ourselves sleeping “doubled up” on a friend’s couch, in a shelter, in a vehicle, or in a motel until we can get back on better financial footing. Housing instability doesn’t happen to faceless strangers, it happens to families like yours and mine. And no student is “homeless” in the sense of an unshakeable characteristic; rather, they experience “homelessness” for a period of time. It is not an adjective that defines them.
The Tukwila School District has the highest percentage of students experiencing housing instability in the Puget Sound region. We call these our McKinney-Vento students, after a federal law that guarantees them certain educational rights. As a district, about 11 percent of our students qualify for McKinney-Vento services. One school alone has 20 to 25 percent of its students on the McKinney-Vento roster. That’s the bad news — we have far, far too many students who do not know where they will sleep each night.
The good news? The Tukwila community does not sit idly by. I am floored by the care, support, awareness, dignity and advocacy that residents here provide their neighbors, no matter what their need. I humbly thank you because in the end, it takes an entire community to end the cycle of homelessness.
In our schools, McKinney-Vento Coordinator Jonathan Houston — and his predecessor, Kathleen Gantz — has done an incredible job identifying McKinney-Vento students. This includes an information campaign that probably puts our staff on the forefront in the nation in understanding how to best recognize and support students experiencing homelessness. Our School Board makes resources a priority, funding social workers, counselors, and re-engagement specialists who know their struggling students by name and need. Educators go out of their way to build relationships with students so they can understand what might be impacting them outside of the classroom and to provide interventions. I am so proud to say that these efforts have been yielding results. Last school year, we graduated 73 percent of our McKinney-Vento students, which surpassed their class in general and the state average by more than 20 percentage points. This is particularly poignant because education is such a clear pathway out of economic instability for these students.
We in the schools are not alone in our service. So many people and organizations partner with us because they, too, believe in our collective duty to care for one another. This includes the city of Tukwila, local food and clothing banks, faith-based organizations, corporations like Inspirus Credit Union and Macy’s Logistics, and many individual residents. Behind many of these endeavors, the Tukwila Children’s Foundation often leads fundraising efforts, administers grants, provides financial oversight, and organizes volunteers for families in emergency situations. Whenever there is a need—childcare, clothes, bedding, medication—an informal network of Tukwila residents and organizations does its best to fill it.
I want to mention two specific projects that I am particularly excited about. First is the Weekend SnackPack program, organized and ran by volunteer Jenny McCoy. Because of this effort, every McKinney-Vento student at Thorndyke Elementary and Cascade View Elementary (almost 120 in total) goes home with a FREE backpack full of food to keep them from going hungry over the weekend. Teachers report back that they have observed a marked difference in McKinney-Vento students and hear directly from families who are thankful for the food. It’s a tremendous effort, and it takes a tremendous amount of volunteer manpower and donations. Please consider getting involved on either front. Contact information and donation lists are at www.facebook.com/TukwilaWeekendSnackPack. Kudos to Jenny McCoy—she is a food angel!
The other program is a groundbreaking study under way in Tukwila spearheaded by Enterprise Community Partners. We will work together to interview our McKinney-Vento families to identify and analyze patterns of homelessness. The result will be a menu of recommended solutions that shifts focus and resources from mitigation of crisis into prevention and stability. The results will be shared nationwide.
In other words, the ultimate goal is to be proactive so that instead of supporting homeless students, students do not become homeless in the first place. That’s when we’ll know we are truly ahead of the problem.
I need to end with another very humble thank you. This community comes together to do whatever it takes to make sure our families have what they need to survive and outgrow financial destitution with grace and dignity.
Supt. Nancy Coogan
Tukwila School Supt. Dr. Nancy Coogan can be reached at 206-901-8006 or at firstname.lastname@example.org