Homeless students prompt districts to look at personnel

Sulphur Springs Union School District administrative offices. Nikolas Samuels/The Signal

In response to changing demographics in the Santa Clarita Valley, the Sulphur Springs Union School District could soon join several other local districts by employing a school social worker at its campuses next year.

The move is in response to a recent growing concern, said governing board member Ken Chase.

“After noticing a large increase in transient homeless student (populations),” Chase said, “we felt it would be a benefit to our students to have this new position at our schools.”

Compared to just a few short years ago, SSUSD has seen a drastic change in its demographics.

Class size and enrollment numbers have stayed relatively steady, but the percentage of students in the district who fit the U.S Department of Education’s classification of “high-needs” jumped from 51.9 percent in 2013-2014 to 54.2 percent last year. The number reached a high of nearly 56 percent in the 2014-2015 school year, according to EdData.

“High-needs students,” is defined by the Department of Education as students in need of special assistance and support, meaning English learners, foster youth and those eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The number of “high-needs” students at Sulphur Springs could soon see a jump as the district expects to see its K-6 student population increase by more than 1,351 students between now and the year 2024, according to a recent report by Davis Demographics.

The problem is not isolated to Sulphur Springs.

Over 30 percent of the student population in the Castaic Union School District fit the Department of Education’s description of high needs, according to Ed Data, while 44.6 percent of students in the Newhall School District fit the same description.

“There’s homelessness and poverty that absolutely affects our students and their families,” said Cindy Takamoto, one member in a team of school social workers that the William S. Hart Union School District employs.

The William S. Hart Union High School District has the largest share of the Santa Clarita Valley’s student-age homeless population, a result of the fact that its district boundaries encompass the entire Santa Clarita Valley.

The Hart district has 608 homeless students, followed by 47 at SSUSD and 40 within the boundaries of Saugus Union School District, according to Family Promise of Santa Clarita Valley, which works with the local homeless population and those in need. The Newhall School District is rumored to also be interested in adding social workers to its school sites.

The social worker’s job is to figure out what the barrier is to a student’s educational access, Takamoto said.

“My job is try to implement services or knock down barriers in whatever way that we can,” said the school social worker for the Golden Valley and Valencia high school campuses. “We also connect them to resources in the community that might be helpful.”

The Hart district numbers reflect an almost steady decline since the district began to phase in social workers nearly three years ago. The percentage of “high-needs” students in the Hart district dropped from a high of 26.2 percent in the 2013-2014 school year to 25.7 percent in 2015; 25 percent in 2016; and 24.4 percent in 2017, according to EdData.

Previously, the district had Child Welfare and Attendance Specialists, but they were transitioned into school social workers a short time ago.

“Essentially, we have the same job but different titles,” Takamoto said about the morph in positions. “We still support students and their families when they have an attendance issue and when there’s issues outside of school that may be impacting the students.”

Sulphur Springs Union School District feeds a large majority of its students into the Hart district following students’ graduation from Sulphur Springs’ middle schools.

As a result of their intertwining relationship, the Sulphur Springs and the Hart districts have worked together on multiple projects in the past couple of years. The partnership between the two districts further developed as the two have continued to work on various wellness collaboration projects, Takamoto said.

One such project was a resource center on campus at the Golden Valley High School called PAWS, or the Parent Awareness Workshop and Support.

“It’s the only one in the district so far and it has tangible resources for students and their families on campus,” Takamoto said.

Sulphur Springs Superintendent Catherine Kawaguchi was invited to the Grizzlies’ campus to visit the PAWS Resource Center. At the meeting, Kawaguchi said she fell in love with the idea of SSUSD building their own resource center on one of its campuses.

“(The social worker) is a position that we are looking to fill to provide better support for our students,” Kawaguchi said. “As you know, we are a district that is continuously looking to support the whole child, and the social worker is just one of those added assets that we want to bring in to help support our entire community.”

Kawaguchi added the social worker would address barriers, and work with the student population to ensure that children are able to receive the full benefit of their educational experience within the district.

Pending action at Wednesday’s meeting of the Governing Board, the school social worker position could be added to the pool of job descriptions within the district quite soon.

“It could go into effect in time for the beginning of this upcoming year or possibly the next school school year,” Chase said.

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