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Washington school district help homeless students graduate in an effort to 'remove all barriers'

When Dizon's family immigrated to the US from the Philippines in 2015, he was forced to leave his home three times due to conflicts with his parents and safety reasons.

Washington school district help homeless students graduate in an effort to 'remove all barriers'
Cover Image Source: Pexels / George Pak

When Mikel Jake “MJ” Dizon was in his senior year at Timberline High School, he became homeless due to domestic conflicts. Just a few months before graduation, Dizon decided to drop out and worked as a Starbucks barista to earn money to pay his rent, but little did he know that the course of life had taken a turn. His family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 2015, and Dizon had been forced to leave his home three times due to conflicts with his parents and safety reasons. “I came out of the closet to my parents, and my father wasn’t so accepting,” Dizon told The Seattle Times in 2022. “They didn’t want to be my parents anymore. And I wasn’t their son.”


In 2019, a report called Missed Opportunities: Education Among Youth Experiencing Homelessness in America conducted by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, reported that 4.2 million young people who experience homelessness each year are less likely to enroll in college and youth who left school before high school graduation were more likely to experience homelessness. The longer a person remains homeless, the harder it gets to obtain a stable housing income. This, however, is changing, thanks to the North Thurston Public Schools, where students like Dizon, who sleep in vehicles, shelters, or tents, graduate at the same rates as their peers. 


Beginning seven years ago, North Thurston hired a staff called “student navigators,” whose sole function was to attend to each homeless student’s needs, whether it was housing, food, schooling, or plans beyond graduation. North Thurston’s graduation rates for homeless students rose from 65% in 2017 to 84% in 2020 and 81% in 2021, within 7 percentage points of the district’s overall graduation rate. State education officials said North Thurston has provided for limiting the impact of homelessness on a student’s life. According to the Raikes Foundation, American youth experience homelessness every year, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers. 

Dizon had sleepless nights when he hit rock bottom, failed classes, and drowned in tasks he needed to complete. However, things changed for the better when his boyfriend’s mom, a teacher at the district at the time, told him about a student navigator. He connected with Gina Goddard, the student navigator at Timberline High School, who supported Dizon's passion for theatre. So when Dizon couldn’t afford a school trip to a Shakespeare festival, Goddard found funds to pay for it. She spent hours with him and filed out forms for financial aid to make sure he had a roof over his head until school started.


“If you are worried about whether or not you’re going to be able to eat or where you’re going to sleep, it is very, very hard to concentrate on your Spanish test,” said Leslie Van Leishout, who helped create North Thurston’s student navigator program in an effort to “remove all barriers” for homeless students. It was the support that pulled Dizon out and into a successful student. “A lot of the things that the kids deal with are super overwhelming. And so I think that knowing somebody cares about them is huge," Goddard said. "And I do care about my students." Dizon graduated in 2022 and said he is grateful for what Goddard had done for him. “I call her Miss. G. Like, you know, my aunt,” Dizon said. “I wouldn't have been so comfortable sitting here in my dorm room if it wasn't for her help.”

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