It’s About to Get Easier for Homeless Kids to Go to School

Whether they will get homes is another matter.

(Photo: Juan Monino/Getty Images)

By Liz Dwyer

They sleep in cars, shelters, or trailer parks or doubled up in bedrooms, but thanks to new guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, America’s 1.3 million homeless students should soon find it easier to enroll and succeed in the nation’s public schools.

The guidelines, released last week, build on existing rules in the federal McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths. The McKinney-Vento rules, which are designed to ensure school districts protect and serve homeless kids, were expanded and reauthorized last December when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. The latest guidelines go into effect in October.

“The guidance reinforces those rules but also gives really specific strategies for how they can be met. It’s one thing to say, ‘OK, you have to give a student credit for work that was done [at another school].’ But it’s another thing to actually know how to do it,” said Barbara Duffield, the director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, which worked closely with the Department of Education on the guidelines.

In particular, guidance that clarifies the role of an educator who is responsible for identifying homeless students and ensuring that they have full and equal opportunity to succeed in school — called a liaison — is likely to have the biggest impact on kids, Duffield said.

“We’ve seen people that are designated as liaisons, but they may be in another job that’s inappropriate for that role. Also there really was no requirement for them before to have that training,” Duffield said. “Somebody could have that title, but they didn’t even know the definition of homelessness, and there was nothing to compel them to at least take part in a webinar.”

Having a trained educator who knows how to identify homeless students and connect them to resources is critical because “by necessity the school has become the most important safety net for these children,” Duffield said.

“Schools are the only place where homeless kids are going to get a meal, where they’re going to have a structure and access to basic supplies,” she added.

The new guidelines also require schools to connect students without permanent homes and their families to other service providers, including social service agencies, emergency or transitional housing, and mental health resources. Complex as it can be tonavigate the web of social service agencies, a liaison needs training to know how to assist a homeless child who may be in a crisis situation.

RELATED: What If the Key to Ending Homelessness Is Just That — a Key?

When they are not connected to such resources, research shows, homeless students are at a greater risk of poor academic performance and dropping out. U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said in a call with reporters that he hopes the guidelines will remove barriers homeless kids face to getting the education they deserve and will connect them “to services they need to succeed in school and beyond.”

For King, the changes are also personal.

“As a kid, home was a scary and unpredictable place for me, and I moved around a lot after my parents passed away,” he said. “I know from my own experience and from my conversations with homeless students that school can save lives. It is our hope that the guidance we are releasing today will serve as a tool to help states and districts better serve homeless children and youth — we can and we must do better.”

The announcement of these guidelines comes one month after the Department of Education announced changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that make it easier for students who are homeless to get financial aid for college.

“It used to be that K through 12 was the focus, getting kids in school. Now you really see the full continuum, from early childhood through the transition to postsecondary,” Duffield said. “It’s not just enough to graduate from high school. We need to make sure that young people who are homeless are going on to college, because jobs in this economy require higher education.”

Fixing homelessness, meanwhile, will remain a challenge. School districts in cities such as San Francisco and Vancouver “are working very closely with housing agencies. That’s really the end goal, to make sure there’s stability,” she said.

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