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.

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.

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.

Awareness of the law has been filtering down, but full implementation is slow in coming. Some schools have to keep retraining staff because of high turnover, while others "just don't want these kids, and will try to avoid implementing the law," says Joy Moses, a staff attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The Center sued last year in New York's Suffolk County to get schools there to stop burdensome screening processes that delayed the enrollment of homeless children. It also sued New York State, which agreed to do more to enforce compliance with McKinney-Vento. The parties reached a tentative settlement in October.

First step - recognizing who's affected

Many schools are getting better at spotting children who don't have an adequate home in which to do homework. One dramatic example was cited in a newsletter from the Texas Homeless Education Office: A district where officials believed they had no homeless children started training educators to identify them, in response to the 2002 law. By the end of the 2003-04 school year, they had discovered 2,920 students (nearly 10 percent of the district) who fit the McKinney-Vento definition.

In Arizona, the highest number of homeless students - about 9,000 - are in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. Flagstaff identified 530 homeless students last year, about 5 percent of its 11,000 students. And none of these numbers includes families or teens who succeed in hiding their situation from school personnel.

"A lot of [people in need] don't come forward," says Joe Gutierrez, principal of Killip Elementary, where Nicole is enrolled. "Sometimes we need to pry into information that people are reluctant to give, but it's only because we are trying to determine what is best."

Ms. Anderson enrolled Nicole in an after-school program that's free for HomeStart kids, made sure she had a backpack full of supplies, and arranged for her to discreetly take a shower at school in the mornings when needed. Darlene was pleasantly surprised when Anderson helped her get a food-handler's license and special shoes for a job in local school cafeterias.

Anderson also advocated for them with a social-services agency, which agreed to pay first month's rent when Darlene found a one-bedroom trailer home in November.

Nicole's transformation

The paint on the trailer is peeling, but inside, furnishings from the Salvation Army make it a cozy place that allowed Nicole to be her bubbly self again. Wearing a hot pink T-shirt and jeans with butterflies sewn on the legs, she shows off her pets - some fish that cost just $3, living in a tank they rescued from the garbage. Someday, Nicole says, she hopes to be a vet.

"There has been a big change in her attitude since we've had a roof over our head, and her grades have come up," Darlene says. Now Nicole is making a B in math, her toughest subject. "Ever since she started [preschool], she's loved school," Darlene continues. "And it's so important to have an education and learn computers and stuff nowadays, so you can get a good job and not have to go through what I'm going through, and what I'm putting her through as a child."

Nicole had her birthday in a motel, she adds ruefully. "That wasn't so bad!" her daughter chimes in. As for camping in the car for a month? (Her mom and Anderson both referred to it that way, and school officials generally don't use the word "homeless" in front of the children.) "It was OK," Nicole says, "but it was freezing, so it was hard to get up and get active."

Killip hosts 40 to 50 homeless children a year, and they often arrive in the middle of a semester. Nicole is one of the resilient ones, says her homeroom teacher, Barb Stuckey, "versus the kind of child who is affected in different ways, [such as] not being able to eat."

Ms. Stuckey is relieved to know that children are getting help through HomeStart, because she can better maintain her role as teacher. "Your initial feeling, your gut feeling, is to not require the same amount from them because you know what they're going through," she says. "I have to really talk to myself to resist that urge, because to me it's really important ... to empower them so that they have what they need to sort of break out of the cycle...."

Killip's outreach extends to adults, too - with groups hosting educational programs on evenings and weekends. "I have not worked in a district [before] where working with our families in need was as high a priority," says Principal Gutierrez. When he first came to the school 10 years ago, he says, he was skeptical about having a shower and laundry facilities. "I thought, 'What are we doing? We're here to educate kids.'... [Then] the light went on and I got it."

Under No Child Left Behind, schools must look more closely at the academic progress of low-income students. And homeless kids are generally extreme examples: The average income in their families is just 46 percent of the poverty level, according to NAEHCY.

For fiscal year 2005, $62.5 million from McKinney-Vento will be divvied up among the states to provide training for school staff and services for homeless students. Districts that don't win McKinney-Vento grants from their states can tap into Title I funds for low-income students.

Through state liaisons, the US Department of Education is starting to track whether homeless students are meeting state standards. In Arizona, for example, the districts that receive McKinney-Vento grants report that 39 percent of homeless students meet or exceed state standards for third-grade reading. That compares with 71 percent of all students statewide, says Mattie McVey, the homeless-education coordinator for Arizona.

But homeless children's skills run the gamut, so schools need to break down barriers to everything from gifted-education programs to athletics or other extracurriculars. The priority given to these issues varies considerably. Many of the local liaisons have other jobs, too, such as counseling. Anderson says Flagstaff is fortunate to be able to hire her full time, and another liaison half time, because the district won one of the 21 McKinney-Vento grants given out last year in Arizona.

Frustrating cycles

Anderson and her fellow liaison, Stephanie Sivak, say it's sometimes hard to keep their spirits up when they see children caught in cycles of homelessness. Families often come to Flagstaff looking for work, but motels along Route 66 charge $200 a week - so there's little money left over to get into a better situation. And the conditions in some of them are "atrocious," Ms. Sivak says.

They've also seen women and children go back to abusers because the shelters have a time limit, and longer-term living options have waiting lists.

Some families simply don't take advantage of the opportunity to keep their children in one school as they move around. "It's frustrating for a teacher if a child is doing well and making friends and the parent decides to move them to another school," Sivak says. One boy is at his fifth school in Flagstaff, and he's only in third grade.

But there are modest successes: Thank you notes from kids who have graduated from high school. Parents who have gained stability, or at least the skills so they can be stable for longer stretches between stints of homelessness. "Those kids are strong - a child who can do their homework in the car, and come to school on time, and want to be here - they're just amazing," Anderson says.

In the broader community, there are still people who hear the word "homeless" and envision a scruffy man on the street. But city officials know that families are affected, the liaisons say, and they're working to change the fact that "affordable housing" is an oxymoron.

Darlene, Steve, and Nicole are squeaking by after they pay $490 a month for the trailer home. Who knows how long that arrangement will last, but one thing, at least, is stable - Nicole's school. One tiny hint of how important that's been to the creative 10-year-old: her homeroom "cubby." The children have hooks for their coats, and cubes just above, for small items. "For Nicole, it's her place - it's almost like a locker," Stuckey says. "She has beads, little stuffed animals - it's like a kingdom. And there's not one other kid who has that need to make their cubby that way."

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