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Getting Help Fast for Disabled, Homeless Students Isn’t Easy

By Christina A. Samuels — March 06, 2018 6 min read
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More than 1.3 million children in public school experienced homelessness during the 2015-16 school year.

Of those, about 18 percent—five percentage points higher than the rate for the general student population—were also students with disabilities.

One of those students was Myesha Lyles, now a 22-year-old college student at Florida International University in Miami. In school, she had to cope with placement in several foster homes, a difficult relationship with her adoptive mother, and bouts of housing insecurity that left her staying with various friends. At 17, she lost her vision due to a brain tumor. That added a disability to her list of challenges.

Lyles kept a lot of her family difficulties secret from school staff.

“I felt like I needed to keep it to myself. [Teachers] didn’t make themselves so open and welcome,” said Lyles.

And she also reasoned, where would she go if educators found out?

“I was really scared that if I said something, they were going to take us and separate me from my sisters,” Lyles said.

Lyles has been able to move past some of her earlier struggles. She plans to graduate this fall with a bachelor’s degree in psychology; Florida provides free college tuition to children adopted from foster care.

But her story illustrates some of the deep vulnerabilities of children facing both a disability and homelessness, and the challenges that can come with trying to make sure they get the help they need.

Two federal laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, govern school responsibilities when it comes to serving such children. But in some cases, the laws have different requirements and operate on different timelines. Both laws require schools to proactively identify children and families in need, but sometimes families or students keep their problems secret out of fear and shame. And sometimes, school personnel may not recognize the signs that a student or family is struggling, or they may not know how best to help.

When children enroll in school is an obvious time to identify some families in need, said Patricia Popp, the director of Project Hope-Virginia, which oversees that state’s McKinney-Vento program. Each state disperses federal funds to school districts for homeless student support services.

“Beyond that, [homeless student liaisons] explicitly need to train every staff member, to make sure that teachers and counselors and bus drivers know what we mean by ‘homeless for education purposes.’ It could be the little guy whose mom is sitting in the car every day to pick him up. Teachers need to know what to listen for. It’s all those little red flags.”

Among homeless students, 76 percent of them are sharing housing with another person, or what the law calls “doubled up.” The remainder are in shelters, hotels and motels, or unsheltered—living in cars or abandoned buildings, for example.

Getting Support Fast

Angeleatha McAdoo, the homeless-education advocate for the Christina district in Wilmington, Del., estimates that 32 percent of the district’s approximately 500 homeless students have disabilities. McAdoo receives data sheets on homeless students from school administrators.

“We try to put them to the top of the list” for help, McAdoo said. But homeless students are highly mobile, and a phone number given to a school one day may not work later on when staff members try to reach the family.

“We try to tell the parent, if you move, you need to notify me as soon as possible, so that we can set the transportation [to school] based on that moving date. I think that’s a big piece of it, we try to minimize that interruption of their education as much as possible.”

In Florida, a state with a large homeless student population, about 18 percent are classified as having disabilities. Debra Albo-Steiger, an administrator who oversees support for homeless students in the 350,000-student Miami-Dade district, said she also tries to get help to families quickly.

“If I have a student who is coming from another district, I immediately call our special ed office. I’m not going to wait months for these kids’ [individualized education program] to be done. If they’re within the shelter system, we’re working with the shelter staff on really how to best help that family,” said Albo-Steiger, who oversees a program for the district called Project UP-START.

The acronym, which stands for “Updating Personnel Support and Tutoring Activities to Retain Transitioning Students,” offers both a description of the program’s work and a term for families—"transitioning"—that Albo-Steiger says makes it more palatable for them to accept support.

Albo-Steiger did not work with Lyles, but said that one of her goals has been to educate school staff about signs that children may be in crisis. Fear of getting in trouble or being separated from loved ones is common for youth facing homelessness, she said, making school staffers even more critical.

“In the last three or four years, we’ve had a concerted effort to make teachers aware enough to ask someone else,” Albo-Steiger said. Educators are not expected to solve the problems themselves, but they should share their concerns with a school counselor or social worker, she said.

The federal government does not keep track of the individual disability categories that homeless students have, but some districts, such as Miami-Dade, do. In the 2016-17 school year, Miami-Dade had about 8,000 students classified as homeless, about 1,250 of whom were classified as being eligible for the district’s exceptional student services, Albo-Steiger said.

Many of those students, close to 400, were identified because they were eligible for gifted services. Of the remainder, most had specific learning disabilities, which is also the largest disability category for special education students overall. Smaller numbers were identified as having other health impairments, emotional disturbances, and autism.

Clashing Timelines

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, districts are required to provide transportation so that homeless students can remain in their school of origin. The law also requires schools to enroll children even if they don’t have their complete educational records available. The Every Student Succeeds Act expanded some provisions of McKinney-Vento by stating that preschool-age homeless children are also eligible for services, that schools must remove enrollment barriers such as fees or documents that might otherwise be required, and that educational institutions must partner with other agencies that support homeless families and youth.

While all districts must follow McKinney-Vento’s mandates, only a fraction of school systems receive federal support through the U.S. Department of Education to do so. In fiscal 2017, $77 million was distributed to the states through formula grants.

McKinney-Vento’s focus is on moving quickly to enroll children. The IDEA, on the other hand, has built-in timelines for evaluating a child for services that don’t fit neatly into McKinney-Vento’s mandates.

“You can have administrators saying, ‘I have to put them in school, do we put them in the wrong placement and then have to change them?’ ” said Kerry Wrenick, the statewide director of homeless student services for Colorado. Before she took that position, she oversaw homeless student services in the Kansas City, Mo., district.

“And then there’s the whole question of whether they have a legal person to sign off on all their [special education] stuff,” Wrenick said, such as a parent or recognized guardian. The IDEA requires an authorized party to agree to an individualized education program, but the student may be living with a person who doesn’t have that standing. The IDEA has a provision allowing schools to appoint what the law calls a “surrogate parent,” just for the purposes of developing and supporting a student’s special education program.

But the tug-of-war between the two laws should not stop schools from offering these students what they need, Wrenick stressed. She urges district leaders not to overlook these students because they’re such a relatively small part of the student population.

“I really approach it as these provisions were put into place to help level the playing field,” Wrenick said. Given the special challenges life has handed them, these students “need a little extra.”

Research Analyst Alex Harwin contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Disabled and Homeless: Twice as Vulnerable

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