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For homeless, no place like school

A federal law tells schools they must do more to aid their homeless students. Despite steps of progress, full implementation remains a distant goal.

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 8, 2005



FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ.

Perhaps never before has so much attention been paid to groups of students once largely overlooked. Minority students, students in special education classes, students with limited English skills, chronic truants - the requirements of the No Child Left Behind federal education law today make it much harder for schools to ignore their particular needs. The good news is that school reforms are shining a new light on needs like theirs. The bad news is that too few schools are able to deal effectively with them. Over the next three weeks we will take a look at some of the children on the margins. We'll examine some hopeful solutions emerging to counter the problems they face - and measure the considerable ground still to be covered before our schools will truly be able to boast that they are leaving no children behind.

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Marjorie Kehe
Learning editor

Last October, Nicole's grades hit a low point. It's hard for a fifth-grader to master math when the only place to sleep at night is the family station wagon.

For a month, her family would drive up into the pine-covered hills of Flagstaff, Ariz., stack up their belongings under a tarp, and huddle in sleeping bags for another night of "camping." In the morning, her mom, Darlene, and Darlene's partner, Steve, would sometimes have to kick open the frozen car doors. Still, they managed to drive Nicole to school on time every day.

They came here in August from Alabama, partly in search of better schools. They stayed in motels at first, and immediately enrolled Nicole in a year-round school that provides her with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But in this mountain resort town, it hasn't been easy to find enough work to put a roof over their heads.

It was the school, of all places, that finally helped them find a home. Realizing that children don't have a good foundation for academic success if they are worried about where they'll sleep, the Flagstaff school district set up an outreach program in 1993 called HomeStart.

The district was somewhat ahead of its time. Not until 2002, with the strengthening of a federal law known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, were all school districts required to have a liaison for homeless students - and to remove barriers to their full participation in school.

The law isn't just about kids who sleep in cars or on the streets. Estimates of the number of children in the United State who experience homelessness at some point in a given year range from 900,000 to 2.8 million. They're in shelters, or doubled up with relatives or friends in overcrowded houses. They're in motels or substandard apartments. They're teens on the run from abuse or kicked out after the latest argument with family. They don't have a stable place to call home - but wherever they are, they have the right to an education.

It's a major improvement for a long-neglected part of the student population, say advocates for homeless children. Reauthorized as part of No Child Left Behind, the law emphasizes the importance of letting students stay in the same school, even if their latest living situation is beyond district borders. That's because with each school move, children are set back academically by an average of four to six months, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Minneapolis.

"There wasn't widespread recognition of family homelessness until the 1980s ... [and] as many as half of homeless kids couldn't get to school regularly because of residency requirements, or because they didn't have transportation or school supplies," says Barbara Duffield, policy director for NAEHCY.

The original McKinney law dates back to 1987. By 2000, 87 percent of homeless children were enrolled in school, with 77 percent attending regularly, according to the latest data from the US Department of Education. Only 15 percent of preschool-age children were enrolled.

"There have been some really significant accomplishments - many more kids are getting into school," Ms. Duffield says. Although she's encouraged, she says there's still denial in some communities. And even when there's not, it's hard for districts to keep up with the growing gap between low-wage jobs and the high cost of living. "Homelessness is a moving target - it's getting worse," she says.

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