Schools facing rise in homeless students
Schools serving homeless children are seeing an increase in enrollment, straining their ability to serve the most vulnerable students.
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The national trend in increased youth homelessness, largely stagnant unemployment rates, and a growing shortage of affordable housing raises the question of how schools can accommodate students affected by homelessness, especially at a time when districts are facing steep budget cuts. At Monarch, teachers, curriculum, and support staff, such as counselors and teaching assistants, are funded by the San Diego school system, while about 55 percent of the school’s funding comes from the nonprofit segment of the school, according to Ms. Fuentes.
Joseph Murphy, an associate dean at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and the author of a new book, Homelessness Comes to School, said research on what schools can and should do to accommodate students is virtually nonexistent, unlike the research that shows how homelessness affects children, which is abundant.
The biggest problem facing schools is how to serve these kids well, Mr. Murphy said.
“The most at-risk kids are the homeless kids,” he added. “They need more voice.”
Mr. Murphy cites the McKinney-Vento law for helping to identify and serve homeless students who had previously been overlooked.
Before the law was passed, only about 25 percent of homeless students were in school. Today, that number is 85 percent, Mr. Murphy said.
The law requires that schools waive typical requirements, such as proof of residency, giving students the option to attend either their school of origin, the one nearest to where they are temporarily residing or schools like Monarch School and Children First Academy, if students live near those schools.
It also waives requirements mandating that parents provide medical, immunization, and academic records, and requires schools to offer transportation options. Those options range from changing the district’s bus routes by picking up students from shelters and motels to offering public bus passes and even taxi cab fare—measures many school districts are finding costly.
Addressing the academic needs of this vulnerable population is just one element to helping students, Mr. Murphy pointed out.
“There just needs to be a broader social attack,” Mr. Murphy said. He said that should include improved housing policies and helping parents obtain education, which may give them access to better paying jobs.
The face of homelessness changed around 1980, when more minorities, children, and families began facing homelessness, according to Mr. Murphy.
Stacy Bermingham, the head teacher at the Monarch School, described her students as an invisible population with special needs. All are at least two grade levels behind their peers, and many routinely come to school hungry, without a shower, and with psychological challenges. Her students have large gaps of conceptual knowledge, and many have learning disabilities and behavioral issues that have been undiagnosed and untreated because they move frequently or simply attend schools that don’t attend to their needs.
Data from the National Center on Family Homelessness, based in Needham, Mass., indicate that students affected by homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and are twice as likely to have learning disabilities as nonhomeless children. About 36 percent repeat a grade level.