When classes resume in the coming weeks throughout the country, districts will have new tools for identifying homeless children in their communities—and new responsibilities for making sure those children are attending school.
In addition to holding schools more accountable for student performance, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, signed into law by President Bush last January, also reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which provides grants to states for services to homeless students.
The revised law, which went into effect July 1 and was pushed by advocates for the homeless, more clearly defines homelessness as living in motels, cars, or camping grounds. And it specifically states that if children live in families that are “doubled up” with another family in an apartment because they cannot afford housing otherwise, they are considered to be homeless. In the past, the housing status of such families might have been debatable, said BethAnn Berliner, a senior research associate at WestEd, a regional education laboratory in San Francisco.
“Districts used to go around it because of transportation costs and high-stakes testing. They wanted those kids out,” she said. She added that the new law is a “step in the right direction and has sharper teeth than ever.”
The new law also extends accountability for serving the roughly 930,000 homeless students in the country to all districts, instead of just those that receive subgrants under McKinney-Vento from the state.
For example, all districts are now required to have a liaison for homeless children and youths. That person will be responsible for identifying homeless minors in the district and making sure they are enrolled in school, even if those students don’t have school records.
“I think there is more of an emphasis on student achievement,” Diana Bowman, the director of the National Center for Homeless Education in Greensboro, N.C., said of the new requirements. “You can have improvements in enrollment, but we also need to pay attention to how they are doing.”
States, she added, are currently preparing their plans for the roughly $50 million in McKinney-Vento aid that is expected to go out in fiscal 2003, which begins Oct. 1.
The district liaison for homeless children, who might also be a coordinator for other federal programs, is responsible for informing parents about available health and dental services for homeless children. The liaison also will be charged with ensuring that preschool-age children in the family are referred to other programs for which they are eligible, such as Head Start or Even Start, a federally financed family- literacy program.
Parents of homeless students must also be informed of their children’s rights under the revised law, and must have the same opportunities to participate in school and educational activities as other parents. Posters about the new provisions should be displayed in places that homeless families might frequent, such as shelters or soup kitchens.
Finally, the law now requires that local district liaisons work with the state homeless education coordinator to help provide services to students.
“I think this law helps educators understand how they are supposed to do the things that they have been asked to do for a long time,” said Patricia Julianelle, a staff lawyer for the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington.
At the request of a parent or guardian, districts will now be required to transport homeless children to their original schools, meaning the schools they were attending when they had permanent housing. If a student now resides in a different district, the two districts involved must work out an agreement for sharing the costs and the responsibility of getting the student to and from the home school.
If there is a dispute over which school the student should be attending, the district must enroll the child in his or her school of choice until the matter is resolved.
Ms. Bowman noted that some districts have had such services in place for years.
California’s 81,000-student Fresno school district, for example, has two people on staff who work closely with homeless families.
“We have excellent communication going on between the district and the schools,” said Teresa Calderon, the principal of Jane Addams Elementary School in Fresno. She added that the district provides bus tokens to homeless students so they can continue attending their home schools no matter where they are living. If the children are in 3rd grade or younger, the parents get tokens as well.
The revised law also prohibits states that receive McKinney-Vento funds from segregating homeless children into separate classes or schools, except for short periods of time. Ms. Berliner noted that some schools that serve homeless students, for example, have a separate room where such children can take a shower and get dressed for the day—an accommodation that is allowed under the law.
States that were operating special schools for the homeless in 2000, such as the Thomas J. Pappas School in Phoenix, are grandfathered under the new law and may continue to exist. (“Home Sweet School,” Jan. 26, 2000.)
Ms. Berliner added that the use of separate schools is one of the more controversial topics in the education of homeless children.
“It’s a hard call because some of those schools have shown success,” she said. “What do you do when a segregated system works for some kids?”
The new responsibilities also extend to state education agencies, which are required to collect information on homeless children in their states and on the barriers to receiving an adequate education those students face. The data must be reported to the U.S. secretary of education, who will issue a report to Congress by 2006.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2002 edition of Education Week as ESEA Includes New Requirements On Educating Homeless Students