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Report Documents Effects of Homelessness on Education

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Washington--A new study documenting the deleterious impact of homelessness on a child's schooling was released here last week at a national conference on homeless children and youths.

The study, sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Institute of Policy Studies, used data from the New York City Board of Education to quantify for the first time what many have long suspected: that being homeless can have academic as well as physical and emotional consequences for children.

In addition to statistics from the board of education, the study relied on a survey of 390 school-age children living in temporary-housing facilities in the city. Its findings indicate that new state policies designed to make schools more accessible to homeless youths have been largely ineffective.

The study was one of several introduced at the conference showing the grave health and developmental effects homelessness may hold for children.

The meeting's goal, said Lester M. Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins institute, was to develop policy recommendations for the federal government based on the new research.

"There is very little known about homeless children," Mr. Salamon said. "The broad issue of homelessness has been addressed, but not the specific issue of homeless adolescents and children."

Though the problem of homeless youths is growing, he added, "so far the federal response has been timid."

Test Scores, Attendance

Presented by Yvonne Rafferty, director of research for the nonprofit group Advocates for Children, the study of New York City schoolchildren compares the reading and mathematics test scores and the attendance rates of students who are homeless with those for all students citywide.

Of the 3,805 homeless students in grades 3-10 who took the standard reading test, 57.7 percent scored below grade level. The comparable figure for all public-school students was 31.9 percent.

On the Metropolitan Achievement Test, or mat, used to measure math skills in grades 2-8, 71.9 percent of the 4,203 homeless students who took the test in May 1988 scored below grade level. This compares with 43.3 percent of all students.

Attendance rates were also significantly lower for homeless children, the study notes.

Among the 6,433 homeless students who attended at least one day of classes between February and May of 1988, the average attendance rate for elementary-school pupils was 73.6 percent, compared with 88.7 percent for elementary students citywide.

Homeless junior-high students had a 63.6 percent attendance rate during that period--compared with a rate of 85.5 percent for their peers citywide. And homeless high-school students attended school at a 50.9 percent rate, while the citywide high-school attendance rate was 83.9 percent.

Not Aware of Choice

In the survey portion of the study, the researchers found that only 16 percent of the homeless children living in shelters were returning to their district of origin to maintain educational continuity.

In fact, many of these students were found to have transferred frequently as their families traveled from shelter to shelter.

Forty-three percent of the 390 shelter students surveyed had transferred at least once, and 11 percent had transferred three or more times. With each move, the study estimates, an average loss of four to five days of school occurred.

Though New York was the first state to adopt legislation allowing homeless parents their choice of school district as a way to avoid transferring their children, 58 percent of the 244 parents interviewed said they were not aware of that option.

Many said they had changed their children's school because they could not afford transportation, apparently not aware that the state would pay those costs under the legislation.

No Accurate Count

Other data presented at the conference documented high rates of4disease and malnutrition among homeless children, which were linked to learning disabilities.

Of key concern to participants were the varying estimates of the number of homeless children nationwide and the difficulties encountered thus far in achieving an accurate count.

Current estimates vary from 50,000 to 3 million.

In February, the Education Department offered a rough estimate of 220,000. It was based on a survey of state reports required under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

Representative George Miller of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, agreed in an address to the conference with those who have called the department's estimate far too low.

"It's obviously not an accurate figure," he said. "But the point is, it's large enough to force us to deal with the problem."

The General Accounting Office will release another federal estimate of homeless children next month, according to a g.a.o. official attending the conference. That estimate, he pledged, will be "significantly different."

This month, the Education Department is also expected to release a report detailing each state's plan for educating homeless children, which is also mandated by the McKinney Act.

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