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Children's Voice Article, September/October 2002

Educating Homeless Children

If you're homeless, where do you go to school?

By Kristen Kreisher

You don't see them on the streets or huddled against the cold on a steam grate, but they exist. Living in shelters, cars, or motels, or doubled and tripled up in the apartments and homes of relatives and friends, hundreds of thousands of families with children are homeless. Families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, and the U.S. Department of Education estimates more than 800,000 children and youth find themselves with no permanent place to call home for at least some of each year.

In 1998, states reported 615,336 children in grades K--12 were homeless nationwide, but professionals who work with homeless youth in the schools feel the actual figures may be much higher. "We don't really know the numbers," says Jill Moss Greenberg, Homeless Education Counselor with Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland. "The kids we know about are the tip of the iceberg." Moss Greenberg estimates Baltimore County, which does not include the city of Baltimore, identifies 300-500 homeless students each year in a district of approximately 107,000 students in 162 schools.

However great their number, every homeless child has the same right to a free, appropriate public education as every other school-age youth living in this nation. It is a fundamental right. How easy it is for a homeless child to access that right, however, is a different story.

Removing Barriers to the Classroom

Although not designed to do so, many of the requirements for enrollment in public schools, including proof of immunization, past school records, birth certificates, and district residency, keep homeless children out of the classroom. Luisa Stark, Chair of the Phoenix Consortium to End Homelessness, says, "Some schools are reluctant to expend energy on enrolling homeless children, only to have them leave shortly thereafter. Others don't wish to accept children who don't have the correct paperwork or vaccines to qualify them to enroll."

In addition to the school bureaucracy, the difficulties inherent in being without a stable place to call home make it tough for homeless children to get to school every day.

According to Christel Nichols, President and Executive Director of the House of Ruth, a program for homeless women and children in Washington, DC, the women they serve are often survivors of domestic violence or traumatic abuse and frequently are battling addiction and mental illness. As a result, their children have been raised in an unstable environment and often develop emotional and behavioral problems.

"The average child we see is in early elementary school," Nichols relates. "They've been through three or four different schools, they haven't necessarily gotten consistent academic support at home, and they've experienced violence in their home or violence in their neighborhood." She says older children, especially, are often calling out for help by getting into trouble, fighting, or being disruptive in school.

Even when children have less trauma at home, periods of homelessness can mean frequent moves and children ending up miles away from their original school-making transportation difficult if not impossible. The children often lack school supplies, basic toiletries, and proper school clothes, and the chaos of a shelter or a home shared by several families isn't always conducive to study. "They don't have a quiet place to do their school work," Moss Greenberg says. "They have no privacy."

Over the past two decades, legislatures and advocates for the homeless have worked to improve the laws to lift barriers to a free, appropriate public education and provide homeless children with the services they need to stay in school. In 1987, President Reagan signed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. Title VII of that act authorized a program under the Department of Education dedicated to the educational needs of homeless children. Title VII also protects the right of homeless children to attend public school. The year McKinney was passed, less than half of students experiencing homelessness were even enrolled in school.

The act requires each state to designate a coordinator for homeless education programs. These coordinators are charged with assessing the nature and extent of homelessness in their public schools and examining how state policies and laws on school enrollment need to be changed to make school accessible for children experiencing homelessness.

Amendments to McKinney in 1990 and 1994 provided more money to the program and required state coordinators to allocate federal funding to local school districts to meet the requirements of the law. The 1994 changes also gave homeless preschoolers the right to an appropriate public early education and gave parents a stronger voice in determining the best school for their children.

Can Separate Ever Be Equal?

The early versions of McKinney successfully brought down some of the legal and policy barriers preventing children from enrolling in and attending school. But many school districts are not following the law's guidelines, and few are aggressive in identifying, reaching out to, and serving homeless students. In 1998, states reported to the Department of Education that while only 12% of homeless students, grades K--12, were not enrolled in school, 45% were not attending regularly.

Barbara James, President and Texas State Coordinator of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, says 15 years after the passage of McKinney, she still gets calls from families who are unable to get their children enrolled in school. Although James says some Texas districts are "bending over backward" to serve homeless children and families, others have failed to comply with the law. "Even though all of these laws are in place, districts still choose to ignore the rules. In many cases it was ignorance. In other cases it was really based on prejudice." James says many school districts feared that homeless children could bring down their all-important standardized test scores.

In response to McKinney and the struggles of homeless children, some school districts and shelters began creating special, separate programs to educate homeless youth. The motivations behind them were good: They sought to create a nurturing environment where homeless students could receive their education along with counseling, mental health and health services, and even clothing, supplies, and meals. Many believe these schools reduce the stigma of homelessness that exists in mainstream schools and prevent taunts and teasing from other classmates. Others think they are discriminatory and damaging.

Barbara Duffield, Director of Education for the National Coalition of the Homeless, says the argument that homeless kids need to be separated to protect them from ridicule is false. "There's a lot of stereotyping that these children will stand out more than any other kids living in poverty. That's not always true. The kids are happy to stay in their same school."

In 2001, the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated 40 schools for homeless children were operating in 19 states. One of the best known of these programs is the Thomas J. Pappas School for the Homeless in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Arizona. The program has four county schools--two elementary, one junior high, and one high school.

When the McKinney Act, now known as McKinney-Vento, was reauthorized in January 2002, these schools for the homeless were effectively ruled illegal. In its policy statement, the act asserts: "Homelessness alone is not sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment."

According to Duffield, the new law, which went into effect July 1, made it necessary for these special schools to undo themselves. "There are requirements on any school district to provide for homeless kids. Districts cannot refer kids to the special schools." Except in some areas.

Maricopa County is one of four in the United States that have been allowed to keep their homeless schools. The others are in San Joaquim, San Diego, and Orange Counties in California. Sandra Dowling, Maricopa County Schools Superintendent and founder of the Pappas School, says these schools were allowed to stay in existence because of "outstanding senators who went to the wall for us." Dowling says policymakers and legislatures are living in a philosophical fairyland if they think the mainstream public school system can adequately meet the needs of homeless children. Integration is "great thinking if you're in Washington, DC," but impractical when you're "here in the trenches with these kids everyday."

Pappas started in 1990 with eight students. "We had 25 kids by the third week," Dowling says, "and we never looked back." Now serving more than 2,000 children each year, the school bills itself as a first stop for children and families experiencing homelessness. A welcome center evaluates the family's needs and provides assistance with food, supplies, clothing, and referrals to shelters, social workers, and counselors. The average student stays three to five months, but Dowling says some kids stay only a few weeks, and others may stay much longer. One set of brothers, whose parents have experienced long-term homelessness as a result of substance abuse, was in and out of the program for four years.

Most children who enter Pappas are far behind their peers academically. And, although Pappas emphasizes education and improving reading and math skills, Dowling is the first to admit the program is not a long-term solution. "We were not designed, nor do we want, to be the permanent education provider. Our kids need to be in their neighborhood school." Schools like Pappas, she says, are places where students can catch up academically and gather their self-esteem while their families find permanent housing.

Many homeless families are reluctant to seek help because they wrongly assume homelessness alone is reason enough for CPS to remove their children. According to Dowling, the kids let other kids know Pappas is a safe and welcoming environment where they can let teachers and administrators know when they haven't had anything to eat or need a hairbrush or new shoes.

Critics, however, say schools like Pappas are unnecessary and allow school districts to ignore that the law demands them to provide comprehensive services to homeless children. "They were basically a dumping ground," Duffield says. "It was a way for districts to say we're not going to do everything required by law." Barbara James in Texas asserts that separating homeless children removes them from any semblance of normalcy. "School may be the only normal thing in their day."

The precedent set by Brown v. Board of Education, however, makes it hard to defend any kind of segregation, especially when based on extreme poverty. Dowling rebuts, "I don't believe it's a segregation issue. I believe it is an opportunity issue. I agree it's not equal. It's superior."

Superior or not, children in most counties have to rely on their public school system and the power of McKinney-Vento to keep them in school during the most difficult of circumstances.

Serving Homeless Youth in Every School

With the reauthorization of McKinney-Vento in 2002, many believe the law finally got the teeth it needs to be effective. Some credit the controversy that surrounded schools like Pappas with calling attention to the education needs of homeless children. Dona Bolt, State Coordinator for Homeless Education in Oregon says, "Because of the situation with separate schools, the McKinney Act has become so much stronger." She expresses relief that the debate over separate schools has ended and "there is no room for argument" about how states and school districts are going to meet the needs of homeless children and youth.

Duffield says every school district that has made the switch from separate schools to serving homeless children in the mainstream "is now a poster child for integration," adding that these districts are serving more children and better identifying families who are not involved in the shelter system.

One of the new requirements of the law is that every school district have a liaison who works with the state coordinator's office to ensure the district provides services to every child in need. Because much of Oregon is rural, and more than half of the state's school districts are very small, Bolt says, "It's easy for some folks to say, 'We don't have a homeless population.'" The district liaisons are designed to change those attitudes.

Bolt points out one of the biggest challenges in Oregon is transportation. "Every community is going to have to come up with its own solution." She says some communities have already developed innovative and successful efforts that give her hope the same can be done statewide. One program buses the children of the state's large migrant population from fields and farms into the city of Portland for school. The Portland school district, which serves 550,000 children, also created an award-winning McKinney-funded effort called Project Return. During the 2001-2002 school year, Project Return served 1,800 homeless children by getting them into regular public school programs and providing additional services.

A homeless education steering committee in Baltimore County, Maryland, comprising early childhood education specialists, social workers, administrators, teachers, transportation officials, school health care workers, and others, works to keep kids in their school of origin and prevents them from falling between the cracks. Moss Greenberg says, "We had this image of not just providing a safety net but trying to provide a patchwork quilt that envelopes the kids and doesn't leave any holes for them to fall through."

Staff development and training in Baltimore County now includes information on identifying and meeting the needs of homeless children. Even school secretaries are trained, because they are often the initial point of contact with a family. Having more eyes and ears in the school, Moss Greenberg says, increases the chances of identifying a family's needs.

Baltimore County is willing to reroute school buses to pick up kids who have moved, as long as it's in the child's best interest. "We don't want kids to move from their friends and the teachers they're familiar with," Moss Greenberg says, but there are limits to what is in the child's best interest. The parents or the child may decide that a two-hour bus ride, for example, is not reasonable. Other school districts provide assistance with gas or bus fare to help kids continue attending the same school.

Duffield asserts that many mainstream schools are doing what they can to make sure kids get the services they need beyond school. Baltimore County is one school district that makes a real effort. Moss Greenberg says the school district works closely with homeless shelters and other community organizations to help families find job services, housing, counseling, and assistance. Volunteer efforts and fundraisers help provide clothes and school supplies to homeless families. Duffield says much of the success of separate schools was a result of community support-something that can just as easily be directed toward the public school system.

"We can deal with the academic part, but we can also help by coordinating with other agencies," Moss Greenberg says, adding that schools can help homeless children break the cycle of poverty by helping them achieve academically and personally.

Urban school districts, and those with a high concentration of low-income families, are often more knowledgeable about available resources and more adept at providing services. The hope is that the additional funding and new requirements of McKinney-Vento to put a homeless liaison in every school district will improve the awareness and response at every school. Each state coordinator in the country had to submit a plan for how they intended to make the 2002 McKinney-Vento act work. In October, they will join a crowd of more than 1,000 educators, social workers, and advocates for the homeless in Los Angeles to exchange ideas, discuss issues and challenges, and learn more about serving the education needs of homeless children and youth.

"There are a lot of dedicated people working on this across the nation," Oregon's Bolt says. We're going to make this happen."

Formerly Managing Editor of Children's Voice, Kristen Kreisher is pursing a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York


CWLA Housing and Homelessness Division
440 First Street NW, Third Floor Washington DC 20001
Fax 202/638-4004

National Center for Homeless Education
PO Box 5367
Greensboro NC 27435

National Coalition for the Homeless
1012 14th Street NW, Suite 600
Washington DC 20005-3471
Fax 202/737-6445

Thomas J. Pappas School for the Children of Homeless Families
355 North 5th Avenue
Phoenix AZ 85003

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