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New Federal Rules on Homeless Students Spur Search for Solutions

By Linda Jacobson — October 16, 2002 4 min read
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Under greater pressure from the federal government to identify and educate homeless children, a group of about 800 educators, advocates, and providers of services to the homeless gathered here from across the country to discuss ways to comply with the new requirements.

The 2001 reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was passed as part of the “No Child Left Behind” Act, more clearly defines how schools should determine if a child is homeless. It also mandates that school districts each have a liaison responsible for making sure students living in homeless or transitional situations are enrolled in school and receiving additional services if needed.

“This is a major change,” Barbara Duffield, the education director of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said here at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “We’re no longer waiting for children to identify themselves.”

The four-day meeting, held Oct. 5-8, was the first gathering of the organization since the new federal requirements went into effect July 1. (“ESEA Includes New Requirements on Educating Homeless Students,” Aug. 7, 2002.)

But as many school district employees here noted, targeting children living in homeless situations can be difficult if their families don’t want to be identified. Experts estimate that about 900,000 school-age children in the United States are homeless.

Changing Perceptions

One other major obstacle is overcoming the perception that homelessness does not exist in certain communities, said Renee Mesnik, the liaison for the homeless in the 27,000-student Scottsdale, Ariz., district.

“What, we have homeless students in Scottsdale?” she said, repeating a response she said she commonly hears from teachers and administrators in the Phoenix suburb, known for its resorts and golf tournaments.

Meeting regularly with representatives of other human services agencies, such as housing and child protective services, is one effective way to identify students at risk of losing their homes, experts here said.

Using other terms to describe homelessness is also a way to identify students who qualify for services, which can include receiving transportation to the schools they were attending before they became homeless. Parents who would never admit to being homeless might agree that they are temporarily living with friends or family members.

“We need to be careful with the kinds of words we use,” said M. Estella Garza, the liaison for the 56,000-student San Antonio district in Texas.

She added that the district’s “residency questionnaire,” which all families are required to complete, has been useful in determining which students might be living in shelters, motels, or with friends.

‘Truly Accountable’

In addition to making states and schools more responsible for getting homeless children into school, the federal legislation requires those authorities to keep better track of how the children are performing academically.

Still, advocates for the homeless believe they have a lot of informing to do before state and local education officials understand the need to include homeless children in the mix of students who are tested. Schools tend to feel no urgency about making sure such children are present on testing days, advocates say, in part because of assumptions that the students will fare poorly and depress schools’ scores.

Under the revised legislation, schools must count the scores of youngsters who move from school to school within individual districts, as long as they were in those school systems for a full academic year. But they can still exclude the scores of children who do not meet that requirement, under a provision that Ms. Duffield called “a loophole.”

“Unless all children are included, a school district and school will not be truly accountable,” Diana Bowman, the director of the Greensboro, N.C.-based National Center for Homeless Education, said at the conference.

Barbara James, the president of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, added that policies are needed to ensure that districts comply with the intent of the law. She recommended giving schools that don’t test all children lower grades on their state report cards, or requiring districts to pay fines if they don’t test homeless children.

The McKinney-Vento Act does not require states or districts to track the achievement trends of homeless students in a separate category as they would students from racial or ethnic minorities or low-income families.

But advocates said that practice needs to be encouraged to help educators determine what educational gaps exist for homeless children.

Patricia A. Popp, the director of the Virginia Department of Education’s program for the homeless, said that to build awareness about homeless students, it’s helpful to talk about the needs they share with other highly mobile students, such as children of migrant workers, foster children, and recent immigrants. “We have to reshape the issue,” she said.

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