At a glance, it could seem there are more homeless children in Beaufort County than ever.
In the past five years, the Beaufort County School District has seen a nearly three-fold increase in its number of homeless students, from 98 in 2011-2012 to 275 in 2015-2016, according to an annual Student Services Report released Nov. 18.
And that number will almost certainly go up this school year given the destruction of Hurricane Matthew, which displaced many families temporarily and destroyed others’ homes altogether.
But the school district, which helps students under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, says it has been responding to the problem. At least some of the increase is a result of better screening, Lakinsha Swinton, director of student services, said Tuesday during a Board of Education committee meeting.
“I think we've under-identified in the past,” Swinton said.
A bit of that growth also is in line with enrollment increases in the school district, where enrollment has grown 8.5 percent since 2011-2012. Overall, about 1.3 percent of the district’s 21,700 students are identified as homeless — whether they are living in a shelter, a motel or doubling up with another family, records show.
Still, statistics show more parents are in need of financial assistance. The district had 56 students living in shelters last school year, up from 40 in 2014-2015. In the same period, the total number of students identified as homeless grew about 38 percent.
Those children get help with transportation, food, uniforms and school supplies. The district also has 21 social workers — one for each high school and one for every two lower schools. That’s far more than some larger districts in the state have on staff, according to Gregory McCord, chief auxiliary services officer.
Some schools also have far more homeless students than others, primarily because they serve a local shelter, such as Family Promise of Beaufort County, in Bluffton; or the Child Abuse Prevention Association’s (CAPA) Open Arms Children’s Home.
For example, students served by CAPA may attend Port Royal Elementary School. And students living at Family Promise or the Suburban Extended Stay in Bluffton may attend M.C. Riley Elementary School, which had the most homeless students — 21 — of any school last year.
Laura Bush, the Board of Education’s vice chair, suggested the district zero in further on some of those schools to ensure their social workers have ample time to meet with students.
McCord said the system is working well for now, with one social worker per 700 students.
The district is enhancing its student mental-health services under a program called Project BEST, run by Duke University and the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Five district social workers so far have undergone training to be able to refer students to the project for trauma and abuse therapy.
And other staff members are learning to be “trauma-informed,” Swinton said, through talks from groups including MUSC, the Children's Law Center at the University of South Carolina, and the Children's Trust of South Carolina. Those services are available to all district students but are particularly important for those without stable living situations.
Although the school district says its identification of homeless students is improving, there could be more children in need of assistance. Family Promise, for example, estimates on its website there are 420 homeless children in the county.