More than 18,000 students in Oregon were homeless at some point last school year - a record high, according to state Department of Education data released Friday.

Most districts listed from Umatilla and Morrow counties saw a lower homeless rate than the state average. The Hermiston School District enrolled 68 students in 2008-09 who lacked a stable roof over their heads at some point, or about 1.4 percent of its population. Pendleton schools saw 59 homeless students last year, or 1.7 percent. The statewide average landed at 3.2 percent.

But the Athena-Weston School District saw 32 homeless students come through its doors last year, or 5.7 percent of its enrollment. That's well above the state average. Both the Athena-Weston and Pendleton school districts were closed Friday.

The state total - 18,059 homeless - marked a dramatic 14 percent jump over the previous year. State Superintendent Susan Castillo attributed at least part of that increase to the tough economy.

"Unfortunately, families living in poverty struggling to get by is not a new concept in Oregon; it's a reality we've been dealing with for years,"?Castillo said in a released statement. "...This year, due to increased foreclosures and high unemployment, we are also faced with a group of students new to poverty that we are helping during this difficult time."

But it's hard to pin down exactly how many students are homeless in a given year, said Phyllis Danielson, assistant superintendent for the Morrow County School District. The increase might be partly due to better reporting of those cases, she said.

In Morrow County, the state report identified 54 homeless students last year. That's 2.2 percent of the district's enrollment.

Danielson also serves as the district's homeless liaison. When staff identify a homeless child, she said, they make sure to spell out what he or she might need - clothing, supplies or extra tutoring, for example. Another key is offering free meals at school, she added.

"We put those wheels into action,"?Danielson said.

Districts have likely become more aware of the homeless issue in recent years, Danielson said. Morrow County keeps posters for students and parents - in English and Spanish - detailing various resources and contact points, she said.

According to the McKinney-Vento Act Program for Education of Homeless Students, homeless students are defined as those who "lack fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." That means a family could live in a shelter, shared housing, motels or cars, according to the state report. That's the definition the Oregon Department of Education used for its numbers.

The number of homeless students in Oregon has now increased every year since 2003-04. It's more than doubled in that time. But there is help out there, Castillo said.

"Oregon schools are getting these students into class, despite their dire and often chaotic living situations,"?Castillo said.

"Thanks to the infusion of federal stimulus dollars for the Homeless Student Education program, over half of Oregon school districts will have additional funds to help serve students and families faced with homeless living situations this year."

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