Helping Homeless Students

What does progressive education look like in an age of economic precarity? How do we make sure that all students have opportunities for self-directed learning? How do we ensure they have access to technologies (particularly if they are also lacking other basic needs)? In this article, education writer and activist Melinda Anderson addresses the growing issue of homelessness among US students and asks how schools can best support these students’ needs.

Homelessness on Campus

Like Dickens’ famous opening sentence in A Tale of Two Cities, the crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children – 57,000 since October – crossing the U.S. border seeking asylum has all the markings of a great drama: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”

In 2012, the number of homeless students in the US exceeded 1 million

With President Obama recently hosting the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to discuss the seemingly unstoppable migration of immigration children and schools across the country hurriedly preparing to enroll large numbers of new arrivals, the humanitarian crisis on the border inevitably evokes parallels to another segment of the public school population that is surging: homeless students.

In 2012, the number of homeless students from preschool through high school exceeded 1 million – a 10% increase from the previous year and totaled approximately the combined population of Wyoming and Vermont.

Experts point to poverty and the dearth of affordable housing facing many families following the Great Recession as the primary reasons for the spike in youth homelessness. Couple this with family conflict faced by many teens, driving them from home, and the extent of child homelessness suddenly comes into full focus. It is a dire picture – according to the National Center on Family Homelessness, more than one in 45 children in the US experience homelessness annually.

Advocates for homeless youth cite the need for “broader societal effort…to tackle the problem,” as housing and family problems are partially fueling the surge. Yet public schools have a critical role to play, and the federal law is clear on what is required. The McKinney-Vento Act calls for every school district to have a homeless education liaison, and the law guarantees homeless children and youth the right to immediate enrollment in school, the right to receive transportation to school, and the right to educational services comparable to classmates. The law also encompasses migratory children living in emergency and transitional housing.

Schools have a tradition of serving as a safety net for children at risk. This concept is even embedded in education policy. The Community Schools model with wraparound services embodies the belief that every child is capable of reaching their maximum potential with the right conditions for learning – putting the focus on supports like nutrition programs and targeted services that lead to healthier students, improved student learning, and stronger families.

Research shows that the instability of being homeless has a profound effect on children’s ability to learn. Illness, hunger, exposure to violence and developmental delays — a “constant barrage” of stress and trauma — afflict the lives of homeless children. Serving their needs requires a specialized approach by administrators and teachers — part social worker, part nurse, and part shoulder to lean on — as youth navigate the turmoil and deal with the basics so they can turn their attention to education.

Budget cuts and dwindling resources mean balancing the social and emotional issues of homeless children as well as their school performance is a balancing act for school leaders – but they have a legal and ethical responsibility to do so. Like the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, the McKinney-Vento Act has never been fully funded — instead it’s another unfunded mandate that schools must address. With this backdrop, the plight of homeless students is a story of small successes and much educational neglect.

In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Wendy Giebink has helped thousands of students as her district’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison, “registering them for school; providing appropriate school supplies; linking the families to vital community resources, such as food, shelter and health services; and tutoring those most fragile children  ones trying to escape the horrors of family violence.” Her work in schools had an incredible ripple effect. She has spearheaded fundraising to benefit homeless youth, and her son was inspired to produce a documentary, “Invisible: Homeless in Sioux Falls,” to raise awareness and educate the city about its homeless community.

This uplifting example contrasts to that of Baltimore, where homeless families filed a class-action lawsuit last fall against the city school system for failing to provide their children with transportation. According to federal law, schools must transport children to the same school they attended before becoming homeless. Homeless parents also sued over policies and practices they felt stigmatized their children.

What Can School Leaders Do?

Education policymakers can’t eliminate poverty or homelessness by themselves, but they can ensure that homeless children receive the support they need – they can take steps to alleviate the effects of homelessness.

Some suggestions:

  • Work with community providers in shelters to identify the needs of homeless students, from homework help to medical care.
  • Provide full-range of school-based services to meet the basic needs of homeless students. Along with school breakfast and lunch, classrooms should be equipped with snack supply closets to accommodate children who are often underfed and hungry. Children lacking a fixed residence also benefit from shower and laundry facilities and personal hygiene products.
  • Educate and train staff to meet the unique needs of homeless students. Prepare staff to work with homeless students and parents so they are fully aware of their educational rights. Training should include sensitivity to students in transition, protecting students’ privacy and giving great care to their emotional health.

Homeless families face many challenges. Securing a quality education for their children shouldn’t be one of them. With diligence, planning, and intention, teachers, administrators, and school leaders can remove the obstacles to learning for our youngest and neediest learners.

Progressive Education in an Age of Economic Precarity

Any discussions of “student-centered learning” must recognize the precarious existence that an increasing number of students live in. Making school more relevant and meaningful should not simply be something that’s tied to economic privilege. Indeed, the growing homeless population is something we need to think about when we talk about the “future of education.”

Are your principals and administrators aware of various legal requirements that govern what services must be provided for homeless students?

Have you assessed the number of homeless students in your district?

What is the protocol for working with homeless families to protect their privacy and safeguard their children’s education?

How do we make sure that all students have the opportunity for self-directed learning?

What considerations do schools make about students’ “home life” when homework and other projects are assigned?

How do we make sure that all students have equitable access to technologies, including Internet access?

Image credits: Jimmy Brown

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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