The number of homeless K-12 students in Oregon continues to rise, but the rate of growth appears to be slowing in the majority of Jackson County school districts, according to data released Wednesday by the Oregon Department of Education.

Of the county's nine school districts, five saw declining percentages of students identified as homeless at any point during the 2016-2017 school year. Three districts saw an increase, and one, Pinehurst, saw no change from the 2015-2016 school year.

Ashland, Prospect, Phoenix-Talent, Central Point and Butte Falls all saw decreases in the percentage of students who experienced homelessness in the last year. Butte Falls identified a higher number of homeless students compared to the previous year, but growth in the overall student population was enough to offset the increase, leading to a 5.99 percent decrease. Even so, the district had the highest percentage of homeless students in the state with 29.63 percent. Butte Falls has topped the list since 2012-2013, the first year for which state data is available.

Medford saw an increase of 0.08 percent, Eagle Point increased .17 percent, and the Rogue River School District increased 2.73 percent.

The numbers are part of the state's effort to track the long-term trajectory of housing uncertainty among students. Rather than producing a snapshot, as with "point in time" counts commonly used to number a community's homeless people on a given day, these data are collected throughout the year and submitted in June to ODE. They impact the distribution of aid and benefits that homeless students automatically qualify for under the 1987 McKinney-Vento Act. If a student falls under the federal definition of homeless at any point during the school year, they qualify for certain resources for the remainder.

Dona Bolt, McKinney-Vento coordinator for the state, said annual numbers are less reliable for understanding whether efforts to fight homelessness or help students stay in school are paying off.

"The numbers are volatile, especially in the smaller districts," she said.

Jackson County has historically included several of the highest-percentage districts in the state, she said, adding that a warmer climate and positioning around Interstate 5 are two reasons why the numbers may be higher here.

"It's the gateway to California," she said. "It's not a surprise to me that they're feeling squeezed."

All three West Coast states are experiencing rapid increases in numbers of homeless students. The number of homeless students in Washington this year surpassed 400,000, and California's homeless student population rose by 20 percent since 2014, according to ODE.

Oregon's percentage has grown by 19.6 percent in the same period. Bolt said the trend is related to low housing vacancies, lack of affordable housing and high competition for living-wage jobs, as well as increased training efforts that have expanded school staff's ability to spot students in unstable housing situations.

Last year, Bolt traveled around the state facilitating trainings for staff at every level of the school system to identify and work with vulnerable students. Phil Ortega, with the Eagle Point School District, went through the training. As director of student attendance, his focus is to keep kids in school, even when their housing situation becomes uncertain. He said he frequently visits students' homes to persuade parents to keep their kids in school.

"Sometimes when you visit, you'll notice, hey, there's no running water or no electricity," he said. "Then we can help them by reaching out to ACCESS or St. Vincent de Paul or some other organization."

The federal definition of homelessness includes a student living in a shelter, car, public place such as a train station, or doubled up with other people indefinitely, which is considered substandard living. A student identified in any of these situations is protected under the law with certain rights, such as being able to enroll immediately in school even without required forms.

It's possible for a student to return to a more stable housing situation during the year, but their status as a McKinney-Vento candidate for that year keeps them in the system to be counted for that year. They qualify for help in areas such as free and reduced lunch or transportation.

Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said the school districts frequently coordinate to enable students who experience homelessness to continue attending the school where they started the year even if their families relocate to another town.

"It’s an unbelievable web of transportation getting those kids to their appropriate school," he said. "But we want to make sure we’re supporting those students and families as best as we can, because it’s important to continue that consistency with their education."

Nearly all Jackson County school districts use McKinney-Vento funds to contract with the Maslow Project, which does multifaceted work with homeless youth — from basic needs provision to counseling. Unlike schools, which release students in the summer, programs such as Maslow are available throughout the year.

Bolt praised the Maslow Project for its broad approach, saying she wants to see it replicated in other counties. Echoing Barry, she also stressed the goal of maintaining stability for students.

"We know the correlation between not getting a high school diploma and future homelessness," she said. "Helping kids out will hopefully break the cycle."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.