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Cloquet school district tackles homelessness, in all its forms

Former student shares experience, successes

As a high school senior, Dylan Lauer lived at his girlfriend's home, a fact that categorized him as homeless at the time.

One of Lauer's parents had relapsed into addiction and been jailed, sending his siblings to their other parent in the Twin Cities.

"It's my life," he said. "I'm not afraid to talk about it."

Lauer, 23, didn't want to lose his senior year at Cloquet, a place filled for him with friends and academic and athletic promise.

"Kassidy's family [the Steens] opened their doors so I could stay my senior year living in Cloquet, so I didn't have to start over as a new student somewhere else," Lauer said of that 2017-18 academic year. "Looking back, I'm really grateful for it. That was a really eventful last year. Football went well, and I had so many close relationships with so many people in the school and community."

Lauer's situation is shared by more students at Cloquet Public Schools than once imagined.

"It's pretty common," he said. "More common than a lot of people think."

Since adopting online student registration in 2000 that requires annual updates to a student's permanent living address, the district with roughly 2,600 students has been identifying more students considered homeless than ever before, jumping from five to 32 and now 41 in recent years.

"I've had a lot come and go, so the number could be higher if I include the kids who started out the year and then left, found permanent housing or moved to a different district," said Haley Kachinske, student data information systems specialist and homeless-liaison for Cloquet Public Schools.

Kachinske reported the increase during a school board meeting earlier this month, saying the district had basically gone from five to 50 students it considered homeless. Those students are eligible for additional services, including rides to school, free or reduced lunch, counseling, backpacks with school supplies, and even connections to community clothing drives and higher-level county services.

Not every student classified as "homeless" or an "unaccompanied youth" is on the street or in a shelter, although that happens, Kachinske said. A lot of times, it's families living together, a divorcing parent, for instance, moving their family in with the kids' grandparents.

"A lot of times, at least in our district, it's the doubled-up situation," Kachinske said. "That's the biggest."

She's tasked with identifying the students, connecting with their families and making sure building principals are aware so that an array of social and educational needs are being met.

"Initially, they're nervous," Kachinske said about families, who fear custody or child protection involvement. "When I'm calling, I'm trying to be as nice as possible. Within a few minutes they're at ease."

Voted homecoming king and seeing his grades improve every semester since an aimless start to junior high, Lauer catapulted from his successful senior year into a college football career in which he was a four-year starter along the offensive line, beginning in St. Cloud and carrying on to Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.

He and Steen are now living in Philadelphia. She's completing dental school, and he's working security and as a paraprofessional at a high school, where he's the offensive and defensive line coach for the football team. Lauer is also working toward a master's degree online, and harbors ambitions for elected office, either city or school board or even the state House.

"I attribute it to sports," Lauer said, when asked about his maturity and resilience in the face of stressors in his life. "Football and sports gave me an outlet to realize there was a way out."

Cloquet High School principal Steve Battaglia recalled Lauer fondly and said his success story wasn't alone.

"There are a lot of kids who are technically considered homeless that are absolutely thriving and succeeding academically," the principal said. "It's a testament to them."

It's also a testament to the safety net in place at the school. Being a kid today is hard enough without having to share details about trials in one's homelife. Battaglia described how students can be savvy and carry on without revealing red flags, something teachers and school staff are trained to look out for.

"A lot of kids go for months, many months sometimes, without telling anybody," Battaglia said. "They figure it out until something catastrophic happens moneywise or foodwise and then they've got to reach out to somebody."

Students stressed by their living situations can also see their academics crater, another indicator that it's time to intervene.

"Oftentimes we're the frontrunner," Battaglia said in terms of recognizing a young person in need.

Battaglia said teachers offer a lot of grace.

"They're pretty understanding if a kid has got a primary battle with shelter, food or medical care," he said.

With the help of pandemic relief funding, the school offers more counseling and social work support than ever before. What used to be two high school counselors serving 400 kids apiece is now a broader armada of support, including interventionists who help keep students on track academically, counselors, and onsite social workers.

"It's pretty robust and we're pretty darn lucky," Battaglia said. "Not every school has it."

If neglect is involved, the team triages through legal resources right away, Battaglia said. In other cases, "it's a delicate dance," Battaglia said, meaning needs are different for every student.

The high school is the building most affected by homelessness. Right now, there are 16 kids who are unaccompanied by an adult, so they're living with somebody other than a parent or guardian. Dad or mom are out of state, in some cases. The students are living with cousins, older siblings, aunts and uncles. All but one of those is a high schooler.

Identifying those students is the biggest challenge.

"I feel really great about us as a district," Kachinske said. "We've really come together."

For Lauer, the experience was one he wouldn't change. He encounters homeless and unaccompanied students where he works at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. He's honest with them and relates well to them.

"To me, those were the cards I was dealt," he said. "I don't see any reason to be embarrassed by it. A lot of people in the world go through similar things. There are those not as fortunate as I was that go through worse things. They don't have resources, or backing from school or community to help them out."