Some Maine schools districts were shocked last fall to discover that they had been denied federally funded grants designed to help support homeless students.
The state Department of Education attributes the denials to what it calls a “scoring issue.” The department reopened the grant process this past October, but only one district has since received a conditional grant, leaving others scrambling to find the funds elsewhere.
Each year, the federal government distributes about $85 million in McKinney-Vento grants to local school districts that are intended to be used to help educate homeless students. Maine receives about $200,000 of that annually to help support the roughly 2,500 homeless students in the state.
Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb says last year, $40,000 from those funds enabled her district to help pay for a social worker to specifically work with homeless students and help them navigate problems such as food insecurity and lack of transportation.
“And so, by helping with those needs, then what we’re able to do is have that focus on academics,” she says.
In 2017, eight districts, including Lewiston, Augusta and Portland, received McKinney-Vento funds from the state Department of Education. But this year, those subgrants have proven to be much more difficult to obtain.
Last summer, the DOE released a request for proposals for the funds, then withdrew a conditional award in September, citing a “scoring issue.”
The application process was restarted in October. But in December, the agency announced that only one applicant, the Bangor School Department, had received a conditional grant.
Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster says the delays and loss of funds have been frustrating.
“It just seems that they’re creating hoops that we and other districts have to jump through that seem to be unnecessary impediments to meeting the needs of these students,” Webster says.
Part of the reason only one school district received funding was new criteria in this year’s grant application that the DOE says were perhaps “more focused” than in past years.
In an email, DOE spokesperson Rachel Paling says that when the department reviewed academic data in 2017, it saw that homeless students were “persistently lagging far behind their peers” and that the McKinney-Vento subgrants “did not appear to improve those outcomes.”
Paling says in its latest grant application process, the department asked districts to think about how to address those problems and to write a detailed assessment of the needs within the district. Only the Bangor School Department scored high enough in its needs assessment to receive funds.
Webster says the federal grant has traditionally supported a position within Lewiston High School’s Store Next Door Project, which assists homeless students. Without continued funds, Webster says the district, which serves almost 200 homeless students, has been forced to turn to local taxpayers.
“At the end of the day, there may be other things that we don’t do that we deem important, but perhaps not as critical, as serving the needs of this most needy population,” he says.
For other districts, meanwhile, the denial has meant delaying new programs to counsel homeless students.
Erica Mazzeo is the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for RSU 57, which covers a number of towns in southwest Maine, near Sanford. She says supporting homeless students is particularly challenging in her rural district, where students are largely spread out, with limited access to transportation and job opportunities.
Mazzeo says RSU 57 was hoping to receive a grant to allow teachers and staff to work with homeless students after school and during the summer.
“We know we have the people in place to do this work. We know we have the need. We just don’t have all the funds we need to put it all together,” she says.
DOE says it will offer another opportunity for schools to apply for the remaining funds after districts have had time to appeal their most recent denials. Mazzeo says her district plans to meet with the department on its application and hopes to receive a grant in the next round of funding.
“While we can refine the application itself, our students will be waiting,” she says.
Paling says DOE is still “100 percent committed” to getting McKinney-Vento funds to local districts and wants to ensure they’re used in a “focused way” that will help homeless students finish high school.