Marisa Castro

Marisa Castro, center, accepting her recent award for Liaison of the Year from the Arizona Housing Coalition.

Marisa Castro is making sure students experiencing homelessness in the Marana Unified School District can continue their education. A Students in Transition Specialist, Castro was recently awarded Liaison of the Year by the Arizona Housing Coalition.

Castro enrolls students experiencing homelessness and signs them up for free or reduced lunch, even if they lack appropriate records. She also connects them to resources for clothing, school and hygiene supplies. 

In back-to-school and enrollment packets, there are questions about students’ housing situations. Under the federal law McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, students “lacking fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” are entitled to the removal of barriers that would hinder their education. 

MUSD has almost 200 students experiencing homelessness, out of over 12,200 across 18 schools. About 70 percent of those youth are in a shared housing situation, with family, friends or acquaintances. Others are sleeping in a hotel, homeless shelter, domestic abuse shelter, car or home that lacks basic amenities like running water or electricity.

“It could be a family of five that moved into a two-bedroom apartment with their cousins who are already a family of four,” Castro said.

The McKinney Act is an “unfunded mandate,” meaning no extra government support comes automatically, although over 19,000 students statewide were eligible for these services in the 2014/15 school year. 

MUSD has won a competitive $40,000 federal grant, three years in a row, to cover the needs of these students. The district also buys sports equipment for after-school activities, instruments, music books and caps and gowns for students experiencing homelessness. 

Last December, a change occurred involving which students fall into the “homeless” category. Children in foster care are no longer counted, cutting the number of students receiving this help almost in half. To help students not in the homeless category, the district has two Family Resource Centers, which offers case management, counseling services, community resources and referrals, and a food and clothing bank.

“There’s support out there for all our students in need,” Castro said.

The main goal is that MUSD provide a stable education for all children, to help them “maintain consistency and normalization during a hard time,” said Tamara Crawley, the district’s director of public relations.

MUSD also uses $10,000 of its Title 1 funding, federal assistance that goes to schools with children from low-income families, to pay for tutoring and other educational need for the students experiencing homelessness.

“Being able to offer support to these students and their families, whatever it may be, is really powerful,” Castro said. “The relationships we get to build is vital. It proceeds some of the quick fixes.”

Since 2008, Castro’s made calls and home visits to find out more about students needs. She also implemented that a portion of Title 1 funds pay a stipend to an educator at each school to be a point of contact for those students. 

These students are experiencing a significant amount of trauma, and having a direct line to somebody within the school can mean the difference between obtaining a bus pass to get to school or not, said Frank Migali, former State Director for Homeless Education.

Migali nominated Castro for the award, instituted by the State Department of Education in conjunction with the Arizona Housing Coalition. He felt very strongly that Castro deserved the award for her “incredible work and level of programmatic excellence in helping homeless children.”

He said she made contact personally with every family, and if their needs were not met, she tried to do more to help.

“She took her work to a level that far exceeded the requirement of the law,” he said.

Castro works more with families, parents and caregivers than the students themselves, but she does work directly with some of the high school students who don’t have a guardians.

“It’s nice to know who these kids are,” she said. “They just want to be like their friends and go to school and have fun.”

Originally created in 1987, the McKinney Act, which covers a number of homeless issues, has had many incarnations.

“Over time, there’s been an understanding that when kids come through the door, they bring a lot with them,” Castro said. “We want to help the academic, but we want to help the overall.”

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