Homeless kids steered into regular schools

A new law encourages 'mainstreaming' and sets up public-school liaisons to assist homeless students

Everyone agrees it is of paramount importance that the nearly 1 million homeless children in the United States have access to public schooling.

But when it comes to the question of what kind of school they should attend, consensus disappears.

Homeless students are best served by schools designed to meet their particular needs, some advocates insist. No, others argue, they will be happier and perform better if integrated into mainstream schools.

At least for the moment, those who urge mainstreaming appear to have won. Last month's reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act includes a provision that requires homeless children to be placed in mainstream schools; it also cuts off federal aid to schools created especially for the homeless.

Mainstreaming is the only way to ensure equal treatment, say those who favor the new law.

"It's a civil rights issue," says Diana Bowman, director of the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. "Every time a subgroup is separated from the mainstream they end up not having resources that are as good and they don't perform as well."

But for those associated with the 41 schools across the nation that specifically serve the homeless, the decision is devastating.

"It's a crime," says Sandra Dowling, school superintendent in Arizona's Maricopa County and founder of the Thomas J. Pappas School for homeless children in Phoenix. "Our kids can't understand what this fight is about. They say, 'We love this school.' "

The Pappas School is perhaps the best known school for the homeless in the US and is one of six in Arizona and California that at the last moment received a White House-recommended exemption from the new law. The school is supported by state and private contributions, plus federal aid that will now continue because of the exemption.

President Bush is said to have been greatly impressed by the Pappas School when he toured it several years ago, and to have remained an advocate for it. Even many of those who argue that homeless children should be mainstreamed agree that the school provides useful services.

Among its special features are shower facilities, clothing, and hygiene items for children who need them. Dental and medical care and psychological counseling are available for the children, while their parents are also eligible for counseling, advice, and assistance in contacting aid agencies.

The school arranges birthday parties and gifts for students who might not otherwise be able to celebrate, and it loans library books without the typical requirement of a home address.

In a supportive setting like the Pappas school, children are not embarrassed to make their needs known, supporters say, and because all the children are in similar circumstances there is no particular stigma attached to homelessness.

But the existence of such special schools may mask the problem and allow society to continue to ignore homeless children, say supporters of the new law.

Schools for the homeless "become a sort of Band-Aid, almost an institutionalized response," says Patricia Julianelle, staff attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in Washington. "Public schools feel they don't need to – or perhaps don't want to – help the children."

Schools like Pappas are useful, she agrees, but should be encouraged to transition into community resource centers for homeless children, and leave the job of education to the mainstream schools.

Homeless students "want to be with their friends in a normal environment," says Ms. Julianelle. "We have seen that when they are they do better, their test scores go up, they are happy."

One of the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act that its supporters most enthusiastically embrace is a new requirement that every school district in the country appoint a liaison to serve as a central point of contact for dealing with homeless children. Even once-reluctant districts will now have to acknowledge these children's needs.

The bill also allots $50 million to strengthen resources for homeless children in schools.

But some wonder if the increased spending will be enough. Children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.

Considerable progress has been made in keeping homeless children in school. When Congress first established a program for homeless children in 1987, reports indicated that only 50 percent were attending school regularly. By 1995, a national evaluation showed that the number had jumped to 86 percent.

But because the overall number of homeless people continues to grow, many who work with the children find insufficient comfort in the fact that more homeless children are enrolled in school. And some continue to worry that mainstream schools simply won't provide a soft enough landing spot for the children who find themselves in such a situation.

It may be easier for legislators who "sit in an ivory tower and don't come down and see what's really happening" to get excited about the abstract notion of equality implicit in mainstreaming, says Ms. Dowling, the Arizona superintendent.

"But when you touch [homelessness] and see it and hug it," she insists, "it's a very different experience."

• E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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