“Any time you think you’ve got a rule, forget about it,” says Paul Cirioni, coordinator of homeless education for the state of Massachusetts. “It’s always a case-by-case situation.” These are the watchwords for homeless education coordinators around the United States, who work to ensure adequate schooling for the country’s more than one million homeless children. Federal law guarantees these children a place in school, but ensuring that each student gains access to all of a school’s resources and services is a daunting challenge for states, school districts, and families. Implementing the law requires education administrators at both the state and district levels to fine-tune their policies on everything from enrollment to transportation to immunizations and student nutrition.
“Every case is unique,” explains Shelly Reed, coordinator of homeless education for the state of Maine. “I have to do considerable research to understand the particular circumstances of each homeless child. ”
Reed, Cirioni, and the homeless coordinators from Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut are helping one another develop state strategies to implement the Federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was reauthorized in January 2002. The New England Comprehensive Assistance Center (NECAC), based at EDC, is facilitating the collaboration and providing resources and training on homeless education.
“We all face similar challenges as small states—including minimal funding,” says Lynda Thistle-Elliott, the New Hampshire homeless education coordinator. “We need to know about all the potential resources and strategies. EDC brings a lot of expertise on both education and homelessness and helps us coordinate our efforts. ”
NECAC has set up a discussion list for the state coordinators, facilitated a series of regional meetings, and worked with the group to create a training for state- and local-level education administrators—including the new local liaisons required under the reauthorized federal regulations. To develop the trainings, NECAC staff turned to their EDC colleague Dr. John Wong, who has worked with shelters around the country for many years and is currently working on a lifeskills/career development curriculum and a whole health care program for homeless adults. “I’ve worked primarily with adults over the years, and I’d been lamenting the fact that I hadn’t had the chance to help homeless kids,” comments Wong. “This work with NECAC and the state coordinators is a great opportunity to improve education for homeless students across an entire region.”
Wong worked with the six state coordinators to share and build on existing materials on homeless education. “I wanted to add two critical pieces to existing training materials used in other parts of the country,” says Wong. “First, a framework for understanding homelessness, and second, strategies for helping liaisons turn the law into effective education.” For Wong, these two points are inextricably bound: In order to understand and implement the letter and spirit of the law, the local liaisons need to understand a great deal about the causes and effects of homelessness. In the NECAC trainings, Wong provides an overview and examples of key issues facing homeless education coordinators, including the following:
An expanded definition of homelessness
The McKinney-Vento Act has broadened the definition of homelessness to include children who are doubling up at relatives’ homes, or living at campgrounds or in substandard housing. “We take the number of kids HUD counts in shelters and multiply it by three,” explains Wendy Ross, Vermont State Coordinator for Education of Homeless Children and Youth. In Vermont, Ross estimates that there are 2,600 children experiencing homelessness on any given night. In New Hampshire, Thistle-Elliott’s recent “one-day count” yielded 773 children, up almost 34 percent from last year’s count of 578. The NECAC trainings help liaisons and coordinators identify, track, and reach out to the families and children eligible for services under McKinney-Vento.
While federal law guarantees the education of homeless children, homeless parents may believe that their children are ineligible to enroll in school because they lack a permanent address. Homeless youth may also feel embarrassed to attend school because they lack clean clothes or school supplies, while others living in domestic violence shelters may feel unsafe attending classes. The trainings provide suggestions for building a formal referral network, including community agencies, shelter providers, case managers, and various school services, that will reach out to the homeless population and inform them of their rights.
Flexible enrollment policies
Some well-intentioned enrollment policies can present obstacles for homeless families who are trying to place their children in schools. The McKinney-Vento law requires that states provide flexibility around such issues as residency requirements and permanent addresses to accommodate students from homeless families. In addition, most states require that students be immunized before enrolling in school. The McKinney-Vento law states explicitly that these children can enroll in school while their immunization records are being acquired and transferred.
Avoidance of stigmatization and isolation
Some schools develop special packets of resources or meal tickets designed to help students in homeless situations, unwittingly embarrassing these students in front of their classmates. Wong urges schools to provide these extra services as discreetly as possible to avoid adding to these students’ feelings of separateness and isolation.
Efforts to meet the needs of the whole child
Students from homeless situations may arrive at school with a host of special needs and problems. The NECAC trainings provide recommendations on mobilizing school and community resources to remedy developmental delays, learning disabilities, health issues, and emotional and academic problems.
With the trainings for the local liaisons developed, the group of state coordinators is moving on to tackle other challenges of the McKinney-Vento implementation. Connecticut’s Louis Tallarita has brought Wong into his state to design an evaluation of the 14 grants his office distributes with McKinney-Vento funds. “We’re hoping to develop a framework for evaluation for all the grantees and to highlight promising practices,” Tallarita explains. The other coordinators believe that the framework will be valuable in their states as well.
Another new initiative reported at a recent meeting includes a specialized training Thistle-Elliott and Wong are creating for New Hampshire’s superintendents, and a statewide training Vermont’s Wendy Ross and Wong plan to create for local education administrators, using Vermont Interactive Television.
Regional collaboration is clearly paying off for each of the coordinators. Understandably overwhelmed at the challenges posed by the federal law, they are also confident that their joint planning and shared resources are allowing them to translate policy into practices that are helping the neediest populations in their states. “These meetings have been extremely useful,” comments Thistle-Elliott. “We’re all the lone soldiers in our state; working through these issues as a group makes a tremendous difference. ”
Five Principles for Educators (from the NECAC Trainings)
- Do not stigmatize children in homeless situations. Do not think of them as homeless children, but rather as children temporarily without a home due to a complex set of circumstances beyond their control—and often, their understanding. They need sensitivity, understanding, and recognition of their individual strengths as well as needs. Have high expectations for their success.
- Make schools safe havens. The family and community life of these children can be so unstable that schools must provide a sense of belonging and security. In the midst of chaos, a teacher and a school can be a source of hope, encouragement, and positive support.
- Think of the needs of the whole child. Work with school and community resources to improve children’s physical health, mental health, and food and nutritional needs. Help meet their basic needs so that they are in a position to learn and achieve.
- Work with parents or guardians to develop concrete goals and programs. Parents who are homeless have the same goals other parents have for their children. Understand that adults in families that are homeless may be stretched thin, balancing many requirements. Many homeless people have jobs. Their time may be as limited as other families.
- Reach out to the community. Building a collaborative school and community network is critical to mounting a comprehensive effort to helping children who are homeless.
Originally published on August 1, 2003