Data dive

Homeless student numbers spike in some Colorado districts, according to KIDS COUNT report

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Homeless children in Aurora walk with bags of donated food after school.

Despite decreases in unemployment and poverty rates, the number of homeless students jumped in several Colorado communities last year, with the biggest increases in Denver, Pueblo and Mesa County.

That is one of the surprises in the treasure trove of data from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released Monday by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

While counties such as Douglas and Larimer saw small decreases in their homeless student populations from 2013-14 to 2014-15, the numbers shot up by 68 percent in Mesa, 41 percent in Denver and 31 percent in Pueblo.

Leaders at the nonprofit children’s advocacy group say the unprecedented increases in homeless student numbers speak to the shortage of affordable housing even as other economic indicators have returned to pre-recession levels.

Sarah Hughes, research director at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said when the homelessness numbers arrived from the Colorado Department of Education this year, “Our eyes kind of bugged out like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

They learned after reaching out to the Denver Public Schools office serving homeless students that new employees had been added there enabling better identification of homeless students. At the same time, she said DPS staff “felt like at least a portion of this was a very real increase.”

The hikes are concerning because homeless students often lag behind their peers academically due to frequent school switches and high levels of chaos and stress. Under federal law, students are considered homeless if they live in shelters, cars, campgrounds, hotels or with another family on a temporary basis.
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Statewide, the number of students living in hotels and shelters decreased last year, but the number temporarily living with other families—by far the largest category—increased by nearly 6 percent.

Hughes said while the affordable housing problem is well known in Denver, it’s less clear what caused the homeless student spikes in Pueblo and Mesa. She said the Children’s Campaign plans to inquire further in those districts.

As the homeless numbers indicate, KIDS COUNT illustrates vast differences in how children are doing  based on geography. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the report’s annual ranking of child well-being in the state’s 25 most populous counties. The ranking is based on a variety of health, education, family and economic indicators.

Child well-being rankings

Despite a slight change in indicators from last year’s report, this year’s top six counties — Douglas, Elbert, Broomfield, Boulder, Larimer and Jefferson counties — were exactly the same as last year’s. The same is true for the bottom three counties—Pueblo, Denver and Montezuma.

This year’s 174-page report also features several new topics, including:

  • A comparison of the performance of online schools and bricks and mortar schools.
  • Data on children living in crowded housing and in families with high housing cost burdens.
  • A look at the percentage of young children evaluated after being flagged on developmental screenings.

Other key education findings:

  • In 2012, Colorado spent an average of $2,721 less per pupil than the national average, a gap that’s grown every year since 2008.
  • This year, 76 percent of Colorado kindergartners are enrolled in full-day programs, with rates upwards of 90 percent for Latino and Black children.
  • Last year, 17,000 Colorado students were enrolled in alternative education campuses up from 13,000 the year before. Such programs serve students with special needs or who are deemed “high-risk.”
  • Nearly one-third of the state’s online schools have one of the lowest two performance ratings compared to 10 percent of bricks and mortar schools.
  • In 2013-14, one-quarter of Colorado’s 11th- and 12th-graders participated in dual-enrollment programs allowing them to earn college credit.
  • The percentage of Colorado high school graduates needing remedial help in college has declined since 2009, but more than one-third still need the extra help.

How are you feeling?

With plan to focus on teen health, Adams 12 school district opens new clinic

PHOTO: Jasleen_kaur/Creative Commons

The Adams 12 school district, Colorado’s sixth-largest, will open its first school-based health clinic this fall at Thornton High School.

The new clinic will offer routine physicals, sick care and mental health counseling to the 1,675 students at Thornton High as well as another 1,000 students who take classes at the district’s career and technical education center on the same campus.

By providing a convenient source of health care, particularly for low-income students, advocates say school-based health centers help prevent and address health problems that can impede learning.

Statewide, the number of school-based health centers has grown over the last decade — from 40 in 2007 to 59 this fall.

Despite the overall upward trend, not all school-based health centers survive. For example, the clinic at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School, a high poverty school in the Jeffco district, closed its doors last spring.

A district official there said the nonprofit organization providing the health services, which were available to Jefferson students and other local residents, decided to depart because district security logistics made it difficult to keep the clinic open during evening and weekend hours.

In Adams 12, planning for the new clinic began in 2015. A district committee chose Thornton High to house the health center because of the high level of poverty in that area and because the campus, which also houses the Bollman Technical Education Center, serves the largest number of high school students in the district.

District spokesman Kevin Denke said the decision to focus on a teenage population stems from the fact that adolescents tend to see doctors less often than younger students and may be starting to engage in risky behaviors, such as sexual activity, alcohol use or drug use.

The neighboring Boulder Valley school district also has a school-based health clinic in the works, though it’s not expected to open until the fall of 2019. That clinic, the district’s first, will be located at the Arapahoe Campus, which houses Arapahoe Ridge High School and the district’s career and technical education center.

District officials said the clinic was originally slated to open earlier, but the launch was pushed back to align with a planned remodel of the career and technical education space.

In the meantime, the district will expand a dental care program that’s gradually ramped up at the Arapahoe Campus. Begun four years ago as a basic screening program that referred kids with cavities and other problems to area dentists, the program last year provided cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants to 42 students at Arapahoe Ridge and two other district high schools.

This year, the program will offer the same services, plus treatment for minor cavities, to students from all district high schools. The goal is to serve 250 students by the end of the year.

Fighting hunger

No more cheese sandwiches: Denver restores hot lunches for students in debt

Students at Denver's Fairmont ECE-8 have a choice of fruits and vegetables for lunch. (Denver Post file photo)

Denver students will start the year off with lunch debts paid off and a new promise that falling behind on lunch payments will not mean a cold “alternative” meal.

The district announced the change this week.

“We will feed every kid, every day,” Superintendent Tom Boasberg wrote. “We know hungry kids aren’t the best learners.”

In some districts, including DPS, students who fall behind on lunch payments may be given alternative meals such as a cheese sandwich, or graham crackers and milk.

Boasberg said all kids will get regular hot-lunch options while payment issues are resolved and the district works on a long-term strategy.

In the last school year, Denver students had accumulated a balance of more than $13,000. The debt would be higher if some schools had not set aside money to help students.

According to the district, schools paid for more than 37,700 meals during the 2016-17 year.

The district said that donations raised by students through a nonprofit called KidsGiving365, and by Shift Workspaces, founded by Grant Barnhill, a parent of an incoming DPS student, will cover all the outstanding lunch debt of students in the district.

In DPS, all students receive free breakfast. Students who qualify for free lunch based on family income do not make payments and do not accrue debt.

For 2017-18, a family of four must earn less than $31,980 to qualify for free lunch, or less than $45,510 to qualify for a reduced price lunch.

The announcement from DPS reminds families that the application for free or discounted lunch can be submitted throughout the year, and that students are eligible regardless of immigration status.