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Opinion

Learning Matters: Family financial struggles can lead to instability for students

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“Over the past several years, as a volunteer with Family Promise of the Verdugos, I’ve met scores of young families who had been just barely getting by until suddenly they weren’t.”
(File Photo)

I’d like to comment on why so many of my education columns have ventured into housing and homelessness.

First, as I see it, learning touches everything. Facts are learned. Behaviors are learned. We learn to live with others, for better or for worse.

That’s why I loved serving on the Glendale Unified school board. Schools bring together issues of academics, arts, physical and emotional health, psychology, human resources, community, economics and the delicate balances of governance, all in one place — or, in Glendale’s case, in 32 schools within a diverse community.

Second, and more to the issue at hand, housing and a family’s financial stability can be big factors in a student’s academic success as well as in their social and emotional well-being. Housing also has a bearing on the well-being of districts whose workforce needs affordable places to live.

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One of my early experiences of the correlation between family financial stability and student success came more than 30 years ago when, as a PTA health and welfare chair, my job was to coordinate a food drive and then deliver bags of food to families the school principal had identified as needy.

Most often, the families had been identified when the principal followed up on referrals from teachers concerned about students struggling in class.

Later on, as a PTA volunteer on the district’s School Attendance Review Board, or SARB, I participated in the hearings to which families were summoned after their children had accumulated 20 or more days of absences in a year.

SARB panels are usually made up of school district staff, a PTA parent and representatives from local agencies serving youth and families, such as the Glendale Police Department, the probation department, a mental-health agency, Department of Public Social Services and some nonprofits.

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All of them come together to help parents find ways to ensure their children’s school attendance.

I learned a number of things from my years on SARB, but a key lesson was how often family financial stresses took precedence over their children’s school life.

Most parents weren’t inattentive to their children’s poor attendance because they didn’t care. Rather, their attentions were torn as they worked two or more jobs, looked after aging relatives at home or wondered where they’d live next.

Some of them battled their own emotional issues. As their worries rubbed off on their children, their children’s challenging behaviors escalated and many parents didn’t know there was help available or how to get it until SARB helped them find out.

Thanks to the internet, access to information is easier now, but parents in a highly stressful environment often don’t feel they have time to research services. Reports of students and parents experiencing higher levels of stress come regularly, and finding affordable housing is more problematic than ever.

Over the past several years, as a volunteer with Family Promise of the Verdugos, I’ve met scores of young families who had been just barely getting by until suddenly they weren’t.

The details of their stories have varied, but their story arcs are similar. They’d been living with a grandmother who could no longer hold on to her house. The aunt who’d agreed to let them stay until they could find a place announced her son was moving back in, and they had to leave. A mother lost her job when her son was sick, and she could no longer pay the rent.

Luckily for these families, Family Promise prioritizes school attendance and provides the support necessary to help parents keep their kids in school and on track.

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But for families without such support, absences often become chronic, stretching from a few days to a few weeks at a time. When those families move, their children fall further and further behind. These days, more families than usual are moving.

Districts have weathered periods of declining enrollment before, as happened following the Baby Boom years when Glendale closed five schools, including Clark Junior High and Montrose, Lowell Avenue, Valley View and Field elementary schools. Clark and Valley View have since reopened.

However, current declines are causing alarm in districts across the state. Pasadena, for instance, recently announced the closure of three schools.

Glendale Unified’s preliminary report on enrollment released on Sept. 17 shows 1,129 students had left the district since last year’s count, not including graduating seniors. Of those, 581 enrolled in another California school, 144 moved out of the state and 209 were noted as “no show, no reason.”

While the report points out that few parents shared their reasons for leaving the district, the report states that “a large number of parents stated they moved from Glendale and live too far to keep their students enrolled at GUSD and cited traffic concerns for not wanting to commute to/from GUSD schools.”

When I spoke with the district’s director of student services, Hagop Eulmessekian, he concurred with the anecdotal evidence reported in our community and others: Families are moving to areas with more affordable housing.

Housing touches everything.

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