Making a place for homeless teens

They're hard to identify - often because they don't want to be found. And once they are located, many schools are slow to put out the welcome mat.

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

Homeless teens often face a double disconnect - from family and from school.

If they're on the run from abuse, a diploma might be the last thing on their minds. Or problems at school could have been the spark that put them in conflict with their parents.

Nearly 1.7 million young people either ran away or were thrown out of their homes in 1999, according to a Department of Justice report - and advocates say there's little funding to gather up-to-date figures. Even when teens are part of a family that's experiencing homelessness together, constant moves make it hard to stay on track academically. Students with high mobility rates are only half as likely to graduate from high school, studies suggest.

Part of the problem is that the welcome mat isn't always out for homeless teens, despite laws designed to remove barriers to their education.

"Sometimes the schools have limited resources, and if these are kids that present any problems to them, [schools] are not always very open to reconnecting or helping them figure out how to get caught up," says Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork in Washington, D.C., which serves 500 runaway or homeless teens each year in its emergency shelters and independent-living programs.

In many cases, "kids probably should have been in some kind of special-ed [program], and we often are in a position to start that process, but it's a slow process," Ms. Shore adds.

Schools that are working to identify and help homeless students are up against the fact that teens often hide their situations.

"We call them the 'couch bounce,' " says Stephanie Sivak, a homeless-student liaison in Flagstaff, Ariz. "They'll stay at a friend's house for a couple weeks and then they'll go to another friend's house.... They are harder to identify because as they get older, they don't want to be identified."

That was Melissa Smith's story. By her senior year of high school, she had spent nearly two years supporting herself and bouncing between relatives' apartments in Washington, D.C. She had changed schools several times, never telling anyone about her unstable living conditions.

Getting good grades wasn't a problem, but she felt a void in her social skills. "I didn't talk to a lot of people; I didn't laugh," Ms. Smith says in a phone interview.

During her senior year, after her grandmother kicked her out in a fit of drunkenness, Smith finally found herself confiding in a guidance counselor. He suggested Sasha Bruce's independent-living program, which finally gave her stability so she could finish school and apply to college.

Now, with a degree in sociology and criminal justice under her belt, Smith plans to start a job as an investigator. "Education always was important to me," she says. "I knew I had to go to school ... so I could have choices, so homelessness wouldn't be an option."

Runaway or homeless youths can contact the National Runaway Switchboard: 1-800-621-4000 or

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