Multi-pronged approach plus grants help keep students in school

Mayer school district receives $25K grant for homeless population

A three-year $25,000 grant for homeless students is but one spoke in the wheel of what Superintendent Dean Slaga is able to access to help his district’s disadvantaged students.

Mayer Unified School District is one of 32 districts or schools in Arizona to receive grant money for Homeless Education Services. Statewide, the grants will assist around 30,000 homeless students in both rural and urban schools. They are made possible through the 2001 McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act.

The key goals involved in the Act include outreach to ensure school enrollment, retention and attendance. Requirements entail access to participation in regular education programs for all homeless students.

“There are multiple things we are doing,” Slaga said, in the wake of the Goodwin Fire and subsequent flooding. He is still looking into the impact these events have had on families in the Mayer area.

This is not the first three-year grant the district applied for and received. The first came in 2009; they did not get grant money during 2010-11 school year, but have received it continuously since then.

“We have to write it with specifics for its use,” said Kathy Pangle, Homeless Liaison and 21st Century Afterschool Program coordinator.

Some of those uses help kids overcome barriers getting to school. They receive school supplies and backpacks; access to hygiene items, clothing and shoes; tutoring and homework assistance; and help locating resources to help families with everyday expenses.

To be considered “homeless,” students actually may have a roof over their heads, although it could be a homeless shelter, motel, abandoned building, vehicle, or doubled up with friends or family.

“There also are groups here willing to help us,” Slaga said, naming the Anthem Rotary Club, for instance, which gives $50 gift cards and aid for covering medical costs. Several local churches have established partnerships with the schools.

The district also benefits from a five-year 21st Century grant that pays for after-school programs. This past spring, the federal government indicated there would be a major reduction in funds, Slaga said, and the program stopped mid-year. The district is in Year 4, which receives 75 percent of annual funds; Year 5 will be 50 percent. The current administration has placed the entire program on the budget chopping block, the superintendent said.

This grant also pays for educational programs during the summer, homework help and afterschool team sports beginning at the junior high level.

The afterschool program and Fridays are used for remediation work, paid for through the grant. “We want to make sure academics is at the forefront,” said Patti Leonard, principal of Mayer Elementary School.

The 21st Century grant also pays for computer and keyboarding classes, and Google Chromebooks for students who have no access to computers at home.

About $190,000 in Title I grant money pays for reading teachers, with a small portion, about $5,000-$6,000, going into the homeless program.

Mayer schools also participate in the much-needed Hungry Kids program that helps supply food over weekends for students in need.

“It’s been a valuable program for our families, and helps provide 75 to 100 dinners to K-12 students,” Slaga said, adding that weekends extend three days due to the four-day school week.

Pangle said 30 percent of Mayer’s students qualify as homeless. Some years that number is as high as 40 percent. This past year she saw a significant increase in numbers.

“If a child asks (for food), no one is turned away,” she said.

The area’s housing market is saturated, with rent reaching $1,200 to $1,300 for families in homes that used to cost $500 to $600 a month, Slaga said. Low-income housing is just not available because of the fire and flooding.

“So, you see, we have a multi-pronged approach, and it involves all the resources we can direct to this segment of our population,” he said.