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Schools overcoming homeless hurdles

Districts face high costs for transportation, while communities help with food, clothing, computers
  • Boggy Creek Elementary School, which has a high homeless population, celebrates winning a national reading competition.
  • St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams speaks to clergy members about the how they can help support the district’s homeless students.
  • Employees at School District U-46 outside Chicago adopted 60 families and purchased presents for nearly 150 homeless students.

A homeless student in Delaware last year spent about three hours a day riding back and forth to school in taxi cabs—at a cost to the Delmar School District of more than $10,000.

The 2,000-student district did not support the arrangement, but it was settled on after school officials, the student and a social worker held “best-interest” meetings mandated by the federal McKinney-Vento Act. The law, among other requirements, gives homeless students who have been relocated outside the district the right to be transported to their home schools.

In some cases, that can mean sending buses outside district boundaries to pick up students. In this case, it meant a long taxi ride for the student, who had been placed with a foster family about an hour and 40 minutes away, but insisted on staying in Delmar schools to be near friends.

“We’re a small district—the financial burden that placed on us was just insurmountable,” says David Ring, Delmar’s superintendent. But, Ring adds, it was more than finances—the long hours spent in transit meant the student couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities or develop relationships in her new community.

In this case, the law gave the student—who eventually switched to a school in her foster family’s district—too much power over a decision that served neither her nor the district well, Ring says.

“In several cases, it seemed like the decisions have been more in favor of the child, and valuable solutions put in place by professionals were not taken into consideration,” he says. “It’s frustrating to many districts, when we want to do what’s best for the child.”

Transportation may be the most complex and costly issue. But to keep homeless students from dropping out or falling too far behind in class, administrators may also have to tap into federal funds and community donations to provide tutoring, school supplies, extra meals and clothing, among other necessities.

Who’s really homeless?

In 2012-13, more than 1.25 million public school students were homeless—that’s an 8 percent jump from the previous year and an 85 percent increase since 2006-07, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).

One of the biggest challenges schools face in providing services to homeless students is identifying them, says Barbara Duffield, NAEHCY’s director of policy and programs.

Not all families reveal their homelessness—even when districts use enrollment forms that ask extensive questions about housing, she says. To identify those students and get them the services they need, districts should have regular contact with homeless shelters and other social services. Administrators can also simply play detective, such as by listening to what students are saying in the hallways, or looking out for students who are hoarding food, falling asleep in class or having attendance problems, Duffield says.

Districts can also rely on buses drivers to spot and report problems. They are likely to notice if a student asks to be dropped off somewhere other than home or are being picked up in a different location, she says.

Another big challenge is housing assistance. Public schools and federal programs for homeless children define homelessness as including students in motels and those staying in someone’s house, Duffield says. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says only students living on the street or in shelters are homeless.

That conflict makes it hard for schools to help families get into federal housing. Duffield says her organizations is working with legislators to loosen HUD’s definition so schools have a better chance at helping homeless families find more stable places to live.

One legislative victory schools scored last year was convincing Congress to allow Title I funds to be used for transporting homeless students, which had previously been prohibited by the U.S. Department of Education, she says.

“Progress has been made and schools are doing great things,” Duffield says. “But we do see some continuing resistance to understanding that homelessness is in all communities. Additionally, the cost of transportation sometimes serves as a disincentive to identifying homeless students.”

Districts sharing rides

But school systems—such as Illinois’ second largest, School District U-46 in the Chicago suburbs—are coming together to meet the challenge of transportation, particularly when students have to be picked up in another district. In some cases, the other district will bring the student to school while U-46 will provide transportation at the end of the day, Interim Superintendent Kenneth Arndt says.

“You have to be very flexible when helping out homeless students, which is contrary to how we run schools where the ‘rules are the rules,’” Arndt says.

Another large system—St. Louis Public Schools—also is working with surrounding districts to share the costs of transportation. In 2008, there were 1,700 homeless students in St. Louis schools. At the end of last school year, more than 5,000 students were homeless out of a total enrollment of around 24,000, says Deidra Thomas-Murray, the district’s homeless coordinator and foster care liaison.

The district, which spends more than $2 million a year transporting homeless students, has organized a regional transportation network comprising six surrounding districts. In some cases, when a student has to be transported between school systems, buses will now drop the student off at the city line boundary to be picked up by the other district’s buses. That prevents buses from taking longer trips into neighboring districts to carry homeless students back and forth to their home schools.

The end result is less dependence on cabs and other more expensive forms of transportation, which leads to lower transportation costs, Thomas-Murray says.

“Our goal is to keep children on school buses—they’re safer and there are fewer incidents of allegations than when children are in taxi cabs,” she says. Those allegations—which, she adds, occur in many districts—include unreported accidents, late pickups, drivers making unscheduled stops or picking up other passengers while transporting students, and drivers drinking, smoking and even dating parents.

Mobilizing the community

The School District of Osceola County, just south of Disney World in Florida, estimates that 85 percent of its of 4,500 homeless students’ families relocated there after losing jobs elsewhere in the country. While they may have found work at the amusement park or with other employers, these families can afford to live only in one of the hundreds of motels in the sprawling county—which has no homeless shelters, says Leslie Campbell, the district’s director of special programs.

Buses make the rounds to the motels, but getting homeless students to and from school is not the only transportation challenge. The district, which has 65,000 students, also transports students to enroll in school and to the public health department to get physical examinations and immunizations.

During the 2013-14 school year, the district spent about $340,000 transporting 411 homeless students to their home schools. It spent another $10,000 on taxis, gas cards and bus passes so students and parents could get physical exams, register for school and attend school events.

Beyond transportation, district-owned laptops that have been replaced are donated to homeless high school students. Osceola County’s high schools have a BYOD program.

The district also has galvanized a communitywide effort to provide homeless students with clothes, laptops and books for summer reading programs.

The United Way provides school uniforms for homeless students. A $200,000 grant from BB&T Bank funds a “weekend backpack” program that gives homeless students meals to take home for the weekend. Volunteers gather the food to put in the backpacks.

“I think a lot of districts, they try to do it all themselves, but you can’t do as much that way,” Campbell says. “We can be a coordination hub. I’m not the food warehouse or the clothes warehouse, but I coordinate it.”

This year, the district is redoubling its effort to provide remediation for homeless students and to track effectiveness. “You have to focus on what the end goal is, which is educating them,” Campbell says. “To me, providing transportation, that’s the baseline deliverable. My goal is beyond that—making sure kids are getting remediation that’s effective.”

A full-time focus

The McKinney-Vento Act requires all districts have a liaison to oversee all services for homeless students—though the role may be just one among an administrator’s long list of other responsibilities.

Kim Snell, of the 40,000-student Rutherford County Schools in central Tennessee, says she is unique in that serving as the district’s homeless liaison is her full-time job.

The number of homeless students in the district was nearly 900 and still growing at the end of 2014. Its homeless program is called “Academic Time Leads to Achieving Students,” or ATLAS. And a teacher, counselor, coach or other educator coordinates the program at each of the district’s 46 schools.

“They are the ones who see the students, they are the ones who actually know what their students need and what services we can provide,” says Snell, who oversees the ATLAS program.

Such services may include donated clothes, special transportation arrangements or access to a local food bank for weekend meals. School supplies and daytime snacks are often donated or purchased with funding that the district receives under the McKinney-Vento law, Snell says.

As part of the ATLAS program, the district has three Title I-funded teachers who monitor the academic performance of the district’s homeless students, particularly in middle and high school.

They check report cards and whether students are keeping up with remediation plans. These teachers can also arrange tutoring for students who are struggling.

Also, a Nashville nonprofit called Students Taking A Right Stand provides counselors to support homeless high school students in the college application process. The counselors help with financial aid forms or accompany students to college fairs.

Snell also works with and educates teachers to help them understand the difficulties that homeless students undergo. The work includes getting teachers to accept the fact that homeless students may not always get their homework done, in part because they don’t have a quiet place to concentrate.

“We try to encourage teachers to do their very best in instruction in classroom, because some of these students are staying on somebody’s couch—where are they going to do homework? They don’t have space, they don’t have material, they may not be welcome where they’re staying,” she says. “I think homework and homeless don’t correlate.” DA

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.