Dear Helena Public Schools Families and Staff,
In December, I highlighted the remarkable generosity of our students during the holiday season. In case you missed it, their efforts to help families in need were featured in the Independent Record Dec. 24. While the holidays are now behind us, the district continues to support families in need, including those who are facing homelessness during the difficult winter months.
Leading these efforts is Helena Public Schools Homeless Liaison Michele Zentz, who coordinates the district’s support of homeless students required under the McKinney-Vento Act. Established in 1987 and administered through the U.S. Department of Education, McKinney-Vento is designed to meet the needs of the homeless, including ensuring that homeless children can enroll in school without barriers. The act provides grants to state education agencies, in our case the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI). The state then provides funding to school districts to help homeless children participate in learning on a level playing field with their peers.
Having worked as a school counselor before starting her new position, Ms. Zentz has helped many families through periods of housing instability. One of the biggest challenges, she says, is the stigma associated with the term “homeless.” She prefers the term “living transition” or “experiencing homelessness” to describe what is usually a temporary situation for families.
At the beginning of this month, the district had 283 students experiencing homelessness in grades K-12. While we tend to associate homelessness with dwelling in a car or tent, living transitions can take many forms. Children living with friends or extended family members, such as grandparents or an aunt, qualify for benefits under McKinney-Vento, as do kids living in a group home or shelter.
Here is how circumstances break down for our K-12 students who fall under McKinney-Vento:
Because the support needed by students in these and other qualifying situations can vary greatly, Ms. Zentz coordinates with school counselors to assist children and their families on a case-by-case basis. However, as required by McKinney-Vento, the district makes the following assistance available to all homeless students:
McKinney-Vento funding can also be used to help students experiencing homelessness stay engaged in school activities. For example, the program can provide assistance with student activity pass fees, musical instrument rentals, AP testing exam fees and more.
If your family is experiencing homelessness, please let your school counselor know so we can provide your student with the resources they need to stay on track at school during this time of transition.
In Student and Staff Recognitions this week, I’d like to congratulate our 22 Access to Success graduates who received their high school diplomas at Helena College today. Access to Success is a high school diploma completion program in which all coursework is provided in an adult learning environment on the Helena College campus. The district program creates a pathway to a diploma for students who have dropped out of high school or who are at high risk for dropping out.
Congratulations to each of our graduates, who have overcome obstacles and put in the effort to earn a diploma. I wish each of you success as you pursue your dreams and next endeavors.
I also want to recognize our teachers who received “Spark Grants” from the Helena Education Foundation. Spark Grants offer an additional opportunity for educators to provide enrichment opportunities for students. Teachers can apply for up to $500 per project, and the grants are offered in four cycles per school year. Each grant is sponsored by an individual or business donor in our community.
Please join me in congratulating our teachers who were awarded grants in January. Their winning grant proposals range from “Knitting it All Together,” a project by Broadwater Librarian Marla Unruh, to “Short Stories, Big Feelings,” by Warren Elementary Literacy Coach Ashley Komac. I look forward to sharing the results of their creativity! Chances are, you know or do business with one or more of the individual and business sponsors who made these projects possible. Please help us thank them next time you see them.
Speaking of community supporters, I would also like to extend our appreciation to the many local businesses, government agencies, and other organizations who participated in the Capital High School career fair and senior presentations last week. We are deeply grateful to these individuals for taking time away from their work obligations to show our seniors the world of possibilities out there, from medicine, to outfitting, to finance. And thank you to CHS Career Counselor Aspen Herndon for her work to make it all happen! Watch for details on the Helena High School Career Fair, which is planned for April.
Our talented Bengals and Bruins will be competing around the state this weekend as our winter sports season heats up. Congratulations to the Bengal boys, who won last night’s Crosstown Basketball game. The girls will face off tonight at 7 p.m. at Helena High.
Tomorrow, our Bengal and Bruin athletes will be in Great Falls, where our wrestlers will compete in the AA Duals and our swimmers will compete in the “Stacy Frey Memorial I-15 Invitational.” Best of luck and safe travels to our road warrior student athletes and their families!
I wish you a wonderful weekend!
Rex Weltz, Superintendent
Helena Public Schools