When students don’t have their basic needs met they struggle to learn at school. 

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So many of us wake up in comfortable beds, eat breakfast and have coffee in our kitchens, and change into comfortable clothes before we continue on with our day, often without considering how critical meeting these basic needs is to our functionality.

But many kids in the Seattle area are unsure whether they will have a roof over their heads, warm clothes to wear, or enough food to eat.

An estimated 1.3 million school kids are homeless in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of homeless children in public schools has increased by 70% in the last decade.

According to Seattle Public Schools data, nearly four out of 10 students are eligible to receive free and reduced-price lunch. (Students of color are disproportionately affected by this sense of scarcity.)

When students don’t have their basic needs met they struggle to learn at school. In some cases, lack of access to clean clothes or safe and consistent shelter can prevent them from even attempting to come to school, says Rachel Madding, clinical specialist in behavioral health services at South Shore PreK-8, a Seattle Public School. “Students can become self-conscious, withdrawn or even act out in ways that prevents them from learning. Having access to funds that can support families facing housing instability or homelessness means that students can access clean clothes and other basic needs, so that they can come to school and learn. When students’ needs are met they can feel good about themselves and confident about their learning.”

When basic needs are not met, not only is a child’s emotional health affected, but their brain development suffers, which could have drastic lifelong consequences. Research has shown that a child who grows up in insecure environments often lags behind their environment-secure peers in terms of cognitive, emotional and physical development — and in many cases, this child never catches up to their peers.

These external factors can decrease the likelihood this child will finish high school, attend college, obtain a degree and get a well-paying job that provides for the next generation of children.

Meeting basic needs for education success

“If a student arrives at school having eaten well, they have the energy to focus on learning,” says Petaki Cobell, Director of the Right Now Needs Fund at the Alliance for Education. “If they know where they’re going to sleep that night, they can pay attention to their teacher. If they have the clothes they need to stay warm and dry, they can fully participate at school.”

The Right Now Needs Fund is an innovative new fund stewarded by Alliance for Education and created in partnership with Amazon, which granted $2 million over two years to be disbursed to all Seattle Public Schools. Through the Right Now Needs Fund, every school in Seattle Public Schools has enhanced capacity to remove basic barriers to student learning.

“The Right Now Needs Fund was designed to help make sure students arrive at school prepared to learn,” says Cobell. “Seattle Public Schools can leverage the Fund to address basic and emergency needs related to shelter, food, clothing and school supplies for their students. We work directly with school communities who engage with students and families on a daily basis, providing critical funding so schools can get the right supports to their students in time to make a difference.”

The Right Now Needs Fund provided support in the 2018–2019 school year, received additional funding from Amazon for Summer programming, and will provide support during the 2019–2020 school year. Alliance for Education is disbursing the funds to schools according to student needs, with schools that have higher rates of need receiving more support.

Right now, 102 schools have a Right Now Needs Fund — all Seattle Public Schools at the elementary, middle and high school level.

Currently, 44% of disbursements of the Right Now Needs Fund support are spent on housing support, primarily ensuring shelter for students and families. About 24% of funds are spent on food, and 25% on clothing. The remaining 7% is spent on health support and school supplies. Over the course of the first 9 months of the fund, 10,014 instances of student support were provided to students in Seattle Public Schools.

“When basic needs are met, students arrive at school ready to learn without the distraction of worrying about where they will sleep that night, or if they will have to wear the same clothes again,” says Madding. “It also helps to create a deeper level of community, when families have enough trust in South Shore to share their struggles and know that there are immediate ways that they can be supported.”

In 2018, Amazon announced a $2 million partnership with Seattle’s Alliance  for Education to create the “Right Now Needs Fund,” an initiative that supports the most basic needs of underserved students across Seattle’s public school system to remove barriers for learning.