Fighting to Give Homeless Kids a Seat in Class

Danielle West, an Illinois teacher, is not a typical homeless person. Nor is her son, who is enrolled in advanced-placement courses at Oak Park and River Forest High School, in Oak Park, Ill. - one of the top schools in the United States.

But Ms. West (who asked that her name be changed) had fallen behind in rent payments during the last months of her teacher training and was evicted from the family's Oak Park apartment in 1997.

Her poor credit rating still makes it hard to find permanent housing, she says. As a result, when her son showed up for the first day of school on Aug. 31, he was turned away.

Federal and state laws mandate that homeless students must be educated. But many homeless families are still unaware of their legal rights. School districts are often in the dark about their obligations to take in homeless children. Moreover, federal funds aren't adequate to inform the public and ensure compliance in most districts.

Even if they are, school officials and local taxpayers worry that the district may be taking on "stowaway" students, who submit false documents to prove residence or claim homeless status simply to get into a good school.

West learned of her rights as a homeless parent the day after her son was turned away. She saw a poster on educating homeless kids. "It gave me a bit more confidence about my son's life," she says.

She challenged the school's decision. Three weeks later, her son was admitted. "Classes are going well so far, but it's kind of rough going to class three weeks after school started," he says.

Illinois out front

Illinois has one of the strongest laws in favor of homeless children in the US. It gives families the option of leaving kids in their original school or the school closest to their temporary shelter and mandates that schools enroll them immediately and provide transportation, if necessary.

"It seems like a no-brainer: Homeless kids should get into school, but it's at the root of some of the most heated disagreements in the state," says Diane Nilan, president of the Illinois Coalition to End Homelessness, who helped West. "Some people are afraid that all of the homeless kids from Chicago will pour into the beautiful suburbs. Some school districts are still saying that they don't have to obey the law."

Before the state's Education for Homeless Children Act was passed in 1994, Illinois officials estimated that more than 35,000 school-age children faced barriers that could keep them out of school. Depending on the local school district, these could include: a requirement to provide a birth certificate, medical records, transfer records; a lease, a deed, or utility bills to prove residency. Another issue has been who is going to provide transportation to school for children when a homeless family moves across district lines.

"Our state law is specific - whether or not you have medical records or the correct documentation for residency or whether or not you have previous academic records or any other documentation - if you're homeless, you don't need those things and you should be enrolled immediately," says Gary Dickirson, Illinois state contact for the McKinney Homeless Children and Youth program.

Recently, Illinois launched a poster campaign to make sure that homeless families understood their right to a continuous education for their children, no matter how frequently they were forced to move to find housing or a job.

Since the poster campaign, phone calls are snowballing, he says. One of them was from West. She shifted her approach from an effort to prove residency to a claim of homelessness. The shift raised eyebrows in Oak Park. Officials hadn't had much experience with homeless children before the West case, which is still pending resolution. Taxpayers in this prosperous district spend upwards of $11,000 per child on a model public education system, compared with less than $4,000 in some neighboring districts.

"We're neophytes at this, and we're navigating some very rough waters here," says Donald Offermann, superintendent/principal of Oak Park and River Forest High.

"If it turns out that a family is homeless, then obviously they stay here. But I also have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayers are not burdened with the cost of educating children that do not have a legitimate right to an education in this school. Our local taxpayers have taxed themselves to support this quality of education. If we did not watch carefully, our student enrollment would probably double," he adds.

McKinney Act sets rules

Until the federal Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987, homeless children often fell between the cracks of the public education system. Moving and changing schools often many times in a year, their schooling suffered.

"When a child moves from one school to another, they can lose three months of instructional time just adjusting to a new school," says Patricia McKee, group leader for the education of homeless children at the US Department of Education. "When a child moves three or four times in a year, they can easily lose a whole year."

Before the 1987 federal law, which requires states to eliminate barriers to school enrollment for homeless children, more than half of such students were not attending school regularly. By 1993, only 23 percent were not attending regularly; by 1995, only 16 percent. But homeless activists say outreach is still critical. Many states are just beginning to ensure homeless students the protection of federal law.

"Many local school districts are still not familiar with the McKinney Act requirements," says Laurel Weir, policy director for the Washington-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

In Oregon, the challenge is not just meeting the needs of flat-out-destitute homeless families, but also highly mobile families that may not fit traditional definitions.

"There's a big affordable-housing problem here and lots of families are moving into the state. We reached shelter capacity a long time ago, and are just beginning to figure out how to get a motel count," says Dona Bolt, Oregon state coordinator for the McKinney program. "There are also lots of families living on public lands out in the woods all over Oregon."

Unlike Illinois, Oregon state law does not require schools to immediately enroll students claiming homeless status. "We have a policy here to encourage districts to enroll the students first and get answers to questions later," Ms. Bolt says. "But we really need to depend on the compassion of school administrators to let a child stay, even though parents may have moved across district lines."

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