SARASOTA, FL – For many students, successfully navigating the challenges of high school through the big day they cross the stage in a cap and gown to receive their diploma can be difficult enough. For children whose lives are in turmoil – particularly those who have left home or whose families are on the street – it can be nearly impossible without a strong and effective support system.
Thanks in large part to the Sarasota YMCA Schoolhouse Link program, which serves youths who are homeless with their families as well as those who are homeless and not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian (called “unaccompanied”), 49 Sarasota County students are graduating from high school this year.
North Port High School student, 18-year-old Hayliegh, has been on her own – without a parent or legal guardian – for nearly two years. Her grandmother, who has been a great support for her, has had several health issues this year and was hospitalized. This hardship and Hayliegh’s instability in housing resulted in having to move several times, frequently out of Sarasota County, which made it more difficult for her to get to school. However, she persevered and graduated with her class last week. Hayliegh has been accepted at State College of Florida and plans to start in the fall.
Another inspirational success story is provided courtesy of Geborah Joseph-Smith, who was served through the Schoolhouse Link SRQ CLASS (Community Living for At-risk Student Success) housing program last year. She just graduated from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee with her Bachelor’s degree and was honored with the Outstanding Graduate Award.
The Sarasota YMCA was thrilled to receive grants of $164,735 from the Esther and Harold Mertz Foundation and $25,000 from the McCune Family Foundation to partially fund the staff positions for those who provide daily, one-on-one outreach to unaccompanied homeless youth up to the age of 21 who are still engaged in school, and a case manager who provides intensive street outreach and case management services to young adults ages 16-24 who are on their own and not engaged in the educational system and/or employment.
The Schoolhouse Link Program is a partnership between the Sarasota Family YMCA and the Sarasota County School Board, with additional funding from Sarasota County, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, and local donors. The program serves as the district’s official McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison and provides services to help families and youth that are homeless and in transition. The program’s goal is to ensure that students in transition are able to enroll, attend and succeed in school. Schoolhouse Link supports each student by helping create educational stability and by removing any barriers limiting their success.
According to the federal McKinney-Vento Act reauthorized in 2001, a family is considered in transition (or homeless) if they lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Children and youth in transition who fit the McKinney-Vento definition have certain rights, including:
• Enroll and attend school, no matter where they live or how long they have lived there;
• Have access to the same public education as housed children;
• Continue in the school they attended before becoming homeless or the last school attended, if possible, and in their best interest;
• Request assistance with transportation to school;
• Receive the same special programs and services as provided to all other children in housing; and
• Have any enrollment disputes heard and resolved while the student continues to attend classes.
“Every child has a right to a public education, but when their home is in turmoil, it can be overwhelming to navigate school and social services systems,” said Ellen McLaughlin, program director for the YMCA Schoolhouse Link program. “Children who are dealing with homelessness are already at a significant disadvantage when it comes to being prepared for life and career success; if they are not able to earn their high school diploma, it’s another roadblock to the opportunities they’ll have in the future. We are so proud of our 2018 graduates for this significant accomplishment!”
The Schoolhouse Link program was created in 1998 and serves an average of 800 children who are homeless each year. For more information, go to sarasotaymca.org/schoolhouselink or call (941) 923-6100.
About the Sarasota YMCA
The Sarasota YMCA is committed to strengthening the community: through youth development by nurturing the potential of every child and teen, through healthy living by improving the community’s health and well-being, and through social responsibility by giving back and providing support to our neighbors. Every day, we work to make sure that everyone – regardless of age, income or background – has the opportunity to learn, grow and thrive. For more information, go to sarasotaymca.org or call (941) 951-2916.