Homeless Kids Benefit from Congressional Act

On Tuesday, January 8, President Bush signed into law the “No Child Left Behind Act”.  This Legislation reauthorizes the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, along with most other federal elementary and secondary education programs.  The McKinney-Vento Act is the federal law that entitles children who are homeless to a free, appropriate public education, and requires schools to remove barriers to their enrollment, attendance, and success in school.  The new legislation incorporates many policies and practices that have proven successful at the local and state levels.  It draws on the insight and experience of front-line educators, service providers, and advocates, and has widespread grassroots support among educators who work with children and youth in homeless situations.

            The amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act’s EHCY program are an essential part of the overall mission of the “No Child Left Behind Act” to ensure that every child in the United States is successful in school, and to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their wealthier peers.  The new McKinney-Vento provisions reflect strategies that, when implemented, enhance students’ academic and social growth, while permitting schools to benefit from the increased scores and achievement shown to result from educational continuity.

            The New Law recognizes that students in many different living situations are homeless; includes definition of Homelessness Children and Youth in homeless situations often do not fit society stereotypical images of homelessness.  A critical lack of shelter and affordable housing in the United States forces most children and youth experiencing homelessness to share housing with friends or relatives; stay in motels or other temporary facilities; or live on the streets, in abandoned cars, and in woods and campground.

            In fact, of the children and youth identified as homeless by State Department of Education in FY2000, only 35 percent lived in shelters; 34 percent lived doubled-up with family or friends; 23 percent lived in motels and other locations; 4 percent were unsheltered; and the rest were living in unknown circumstances (U.S. Department of Education FY2000Report to Congress).  Many people, including educators, may not realize the breadth of students who are considered homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act and as such qualify for its protections and services.  The reauthorized McKinney-Vento Act therefore contains a broad array of inadequate living situations, including students sharing the living accommodations of others due to economic hardship or lack of housing (“doubled-up”), students in motels, and many other homeless situations.  This definition of homelessness incorporates categories from current U.S. Department of Education guidance, and is applicable only to the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act.

            The New Law Applies to All School Districts homelessness, while often invisible, is nonetheless widespread in the United States.  In recognition of the fact that families and youth may become homeless in any community in the nation, the basic educational protections of the reauthorized McKinney-Vento Act apply to all school districts in all 50 states.  The McKinney-Vento Act, as a federal law, supercedes state and local educational law and policy.  Under the New Law.

            All school districts must designate an appropriate staff person as a local educational agency liaison for students in homeless situations.  Liaisons are school district staff responsible for ensuring the identification, school enrollment, attendance, and opportunities for academic success of students in homeless situations.  By linking students and their families to school and community services, liaisons play a critical role in stabilizing students and promoting academic achievement at the individual, school, and district level.

            Liaisons are also required to ensure that public notice of the educational rights of students in homeless situations is disseminated where children and youth receive services.  In addition, liaisons must ensure that parents or guardians are informed of educational and related opportunities available to their children, are provided with meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children, and are informed of, and assisted in accessing, all transportation services, including to the school of origin.

            Every state that receives McKinney-Vento Act funds must established an Office State Coordinator for the new law; this office must provide technical assistance to all school districts in the state to help them comply with all local school district requirements, including the integration of students into the mainstream school environment. 

The New Law Focuses on Increasing Academic Achievement through School Stability, Access, and Support New provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act fall into three main categories: stability, access, and support.

Increased School Stability

Changing schools greatly impedes students’ academic and social growth.   When students change schools, they often lose friends, teachers, and academic progress.  It is estimated that it takes a child four to six months to recover academically after changing schools.  Highly mobile students, including students who are homeless, have also been found to have lower test scores and overall academic performance than peers who do not change schools.  Therefore, under the new law:

School districts are required to keep students in their schools of origin, to the extent feasible, unless it is against the parents’ or guardian’s wishes.  The school of origin is either the school attended when permanently housed, or the school in which the student was last enrolled.  Students are permitted to remain in their schools of origin for the duration of their homelessness, and until the end of any academic year in which they become permanently housed.  School districts must provide transportation to the school of origin, at the request of the parent or guardian, or in the case of an unaccompanied youth, at the request of the school district’s homeless liaison.  If a student is sent to a school other than that requested by a parent or guardian, the school must provide a written explanation of its decision and the right to appeal. 

Liaisons must help unaccompanied youth choose and enroll in a school, after considering the youth’s wishes, and provide the youth with notice of his or her right to appeal the school district’s decision.  The educational stability resulting form these provisions will enhance students’ academic and social growth, while permitting schools to benefit from the increased test scores and achievement shown to result from student continuity. 

Increased School Access

Parents or guardians who are homeless may choose to enroll their children (or unaccompanied youth may choose to enroll) in the public school in the attendance area where they are living.  However, barriers to enrollment may prevent them from doing so in a timely manner. For example, children and youth experiencing homelessness often do not have the documents ordinarily required for school enrollment.  Enrolling students in homeless situations in school immediately provides stability and avoids separating children from school for days or weeks while documents are located.  Attendance in school may be     the only opportunity for children and youth to benefit from a stable environment, uninterrupted adult attention, peer relations, academic stimulation and reliable meals.  Under the new law:

Schools must immediately enroll students in homeless situations, even if they do not have required documents, such as school records, medical records, proof of residency, or other documents.  The term “enroll” is defined as attending classes and participating fully in school activities.  Enrolling schools must obtain school records from the previous school.  Students must be enrolled in school while records are obtained.  The school district’s homeless liaison must immediately assist in obtaining immunizations or records of immunization or other medical records for those students who do not have them.  Students must be enrolled in school in the interim.

Increased School Support

Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—also reauthorized in the No Child Left Behind Act—provides support for students who are most at risk of failing in school.  The Title I program is one of the largest federal education programs.  Congress appropriated over $10 billion in federal funding for the Title I program for FY2002.  Although McKinney – Vento Act funds reach only 12% of all school districts, over 90% of all school districts receive Title I funds.  Under the recently reauthorized Title I statute:

A child or youth who is homeless and is attending any school district is eligible for Title I services.  School districts must reserve (or set aside) funds as are necessary to serve homeless children who do not attend participating schools, including providing educationally related support services to children in shelters and other locations where children may live.  These services must be comparable to those provided to children in Title I funded schools.  Each local school district’s Title I plan must include a description of the services that will be provided to homeless children, including services provide with funds from the “Reservation of Funds” set aside.

 Title I can provide a broad variety of services to students who are homeless, including transportation, school supplies, supplemental instruction, and counseling.  It can also help to fund the positions of liaisons or coordinators.  By clarifying that students who are homeless must be served by the Title I program, the new law greatly enhances the resources that are available to help students who are homeless succeed in school. 

New Law Requires Integration into Mainstream School Environment Separating children who are homeless from their housed peers increases the stigma associated with homelessness, causes unnecessary educational and social disruption, and deprives children of the full-range of educational opportunities to which they are entitled.  In order to ensure that children and youth ion homeless situations benefit form the stability, diversity, opportunities, and resources of mainstream schools, under the new law:

Separate schools, separate programs within schools, or separate settings within schools are prohibited.  If McKinney-Vento-funded services are provide on school grounds, schools must not provide services in settings within a school that segregate homeless children and youth from other children and youth, except as is necessary for short periods of time for health and safety emergencies, to provide temporary, special, and supplementary services.  States that have separate schools that operate in FY2000 in a “covered county” are excluded from this prohibition, and are eligible to receive McKinney funds.  States and local school districts must adopt policies and practices to ensure that homeless children and youth are not segregated or stigmatized on the basis of their status as homeless. 

New Law More than Doubles Authorized Funding Level for McKinney-Vento Program Homelessness among families and youth has increased significantly since the 1994 reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Act.  Tragically, our nation’s failure to address the lack of affordable housing and deep poverty that cause homelessness   has resulted in its continued growth.  A survey of 27 U.S. cities found that requests for emergency shelter increased by an average of 13 percent in 2001; requests for shelter by homeless families alone increased by 22 percent. 

Thus, demand has far outstripped the resources available to help students enroll, attend, and succeed in school.  In FY2000, states were able to provide direct services to only 28% of the identified homeless children and youth.  The new law more than doubles the authorized funding level from $30 million to $70 million.  The authorized funding level is the ceiling, or maximum amount that Congress sets for a program.  The amount of funding that is actually provided is determined annually by the Congressional appropriations process.  For FY2002, Congress appropriated $50 million dollars for the EHCY program.  This represents a $15 million increase above the current level, and will enable schools to help thousands more children and youth experiencing homelessness.

Copyright Cleveland Street Chroncile March-April 2002 Cleveland, Ohio