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Homeless child enrolled in wrong school: What should happen to him?

Connecticut resident Tanya McDowell is charged with intentionally enrolling her son in the wrong school district. But homeless advocates wonder why the son has now changed schools, since federal law is supposed to protect his 'best educational interest.'

By Staff writer / April 28, 2011

Tanya McDowell (l.) stands with Connecticut NAACP Conference President Scott Exdaile and other supporters outside state superior court in Norwalk, Conn., Wednesday.

Stephanie Reitz/AP

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The case of Tanya McDowell is putting advocates for homeless students on alert.

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Ms. McDowell pleaded not guilty in Norwalk Superior Court Wednesday to felony larceny charges for wrongly enrolling her son in kindergarten in a Norwalk, Conn., school. She has said that she splits her time between a Norwalk shelter, her van, and a friend’s apartment in Bridgeport. But prosecutors say that she illegally used her baby sitter's address to enroll her son in a better-performing school system than the one he was legally obligated to attend.

The charges carry a potential 20-year prison sentence and up to $15,000 in fines.

For homeless advocates, however, one of the most important issues in the case revolves around the fate of the child, who transferred to a school in nearby Bridgeport in January. Education research has shown that moving homeless students from school to school can be detrimental to their success, and it is still unclear whether McDowell moved her son voluntarily or whether she was forced to.

“Any midyear disruption that can be avoided needs to be avoided.... We need to stabilize kids’ education and not have these bureaucratic boundary lines get in the way,” says Barbara Duffield, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Washington.

The Norwalk district claims that McDowell decided to move him on her own, without telling Norwalk officials she was homeless. McDowell claims some authority called her and told her she had to move her son to a school in Bridgeport, where her most recent permanent address had been.

Federal law protects homeless students

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires states to ensure that homeless children have equal access to education, and to reduce barriers to school stability. “That’s the federal law’s entire point, to look at that child’s best educational interest,” Ms. Duffield says.

The economy is ratcheting up the number of students who don’t have a steady place to live. In 2008-09, the number of K-12 students identified as homeless was 956,914, up 41 percent from two years before, according to NAEHCY. Among the states that have sent the group more recent numbers, the increases range from 5 percent in Oregon to more than 25 percent in Nebraska.

Under McKinney-Vento, homelessness includes not just living in shelters, motels, or cars, but also doubling up with other families because of loss of housing or economic hardship.

The law allows students to stay in the school they were attending when they became homeless even if their family is moving around, or to move to the school in the area that has become their primary nighttime residence.

The McDowell case, apparently the first such criminal case in Connecticut, highlights the challenges school districts can face in identifying homeless students.

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