One Million Students Homeless

By Caralee Adams, Scholastic Administrator magazine

The school secretary couldn't believe the student was homeless. He had new Nike sneakers, carried a cell phone, and looked like any other high school student. That's because Beth McCullough was doing her job.

Beth is the homeless education coordinator for Adrian Public Schools in southeastern Michigan. Through a local service organization, she was able to get a pair of size-13 shoes for the boy. She gave him a prepaid phone for safety, since he was sleeping in an abandoned building. And every morning, Beth made sure the locker room was open early and stocked with a clean towel and shampoo so he could shower.

"If you have a good homeless program, you shouldn't be able to tell who is homeless by the way they look," says Beth. She takes the secretary's skepticism as "a compliment."

Beth is one of 16,000 liaisons across the nation who support a growing number of homeless students. In 2009-10, there were nearly a million homeless students in U.S. public schools. That's a 38 percent increase from 2006-07 and is likely an undercount, reports Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington, D.C.

"With the recession, job loss, unemployment, and the foreclosure crisis, it's unprecedented to see homelessness on this scale," says Barbara. "Rather than being a blip, it's now lasting."

As more families, including some who were once middle class, enter the ranks of the homeless, the demand for services and the need for sensitivity training are rising just as schools' budgets are being cut. Some districts are coping by partnering with community-based organizations and getting creative with services. Others are taking advantage of government subgrants. Advocates maintain there are ways to accommodate this vulnerable population. But first educators must learn how to best approach, and deal with, the challenges involved.

Meeting the Law's Requirements

In 1987, the federal government enacted the Mckinney-Vento Act, which requires that every school district provide homeless students with equal access to public education. Districts need to count homeless students and have a homeless liaison to serve their needs.

Homeless students, as defined by the law, include those who are staying in a hotel/motel or shelter, are unsheltered, or are "doubled up" with friends or family. Being doubled up is the most common, accounting for 71 percent of homeless students in the 2009-10 school year.

The law sets up competitive subgrants to help fund support services. Many districts use grants to transport students back to their schools of origin so they can have some stability in their educational life. Others use subgrants for after-school programs, tutoring, and school supplies. But districts must know how to craft an effective application.

The program is "woefully underfunded," says Barbara, with $65 million a year in federal grants going to about 3,000 of the country's 15,000 school districts. All schools need to provide homeless services, but most do so without extra grants.

"The McKinney-Vento Act is supposed to count kids and do everything to help them succeed, but schools are strapped for resources," says Ellen Bassuk, founder of the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) in Needham, Mass. "It's not about intention; it's about resources. Some schools have better resources than others."

Since 1988, Ellen's organization has been working on the problem of family homelessness. Lack of affordable housing and poverty are drivers, along with the increase in families headed by single moms, which now make up one in five families nationwide. "If the mom is stressed, the kids will be stressed," says Ellen. "Going to school tired, stressed, and worried, and then having to pay attention – it's very hard."

Pairing Sensitivity With Assistance

Because their living situations are so unstable, children who are homeless find it difficult to maintain academic continuity, says Diana Bowman, program director for the National Center for Homeless Education at the SERVE Center in Browns Summit, N.C. "Every time a child moves from one school to another, there are issues of being in a place where nobody knows them, with a new peer group. Moving from one new curriculum to another – that's a huge challenge," she says.

To help children adapt, and to identify those who are homeless in a discreet manner, a district or school must have a coordinated and solid plan. At the top, administrators need to understand their responsibilities under McKinney-Vento and support the work of homeless liaisons, says Beth. A superintendent once told her the district was doing for a homeless kid what it would do for any kid. "It isn't enough to do what we would do for any student," responded Beth. They need extra support, just as special education students do.

In the classroom, teachers should look for children who appear sleepy or are wearing the same clothes, or who are carrying lots of belongings, hoarding food, or talking about moving often, says Diana.

Many children are embarrassed about their situation, and interventions should be done confidentially. Consider avoiding the term "homeless" altogether, says Lisa Mentesana, support specialist with the Beaverton, Ore., school district, which has the highest homeless student population in the state. In 2010, she worked with 1,580 students; in the fall of 2011, she had already served 1,033 students.

"In our first communication, we never say ‘homeless,'" she says. "We say, ‘We are from a social support office and understand you might be having a difficult time. We wanted to let you know about some support services available.'" Families who are doubling up often don't consider themselves to be homeless, although they are eligible for support under the law. Lisa has seen families trying to "sneak" their children into school after they've moved out of the area, and they are relieved when they learn their kids can stay in their home school.

Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

Dona Bolt, homeless education coordinator for the Oregon Department of Education, has seen homelessness rise over the past 25 years. Since families are mobile and districts often share students, school administrators must collaborate, she says. They can coordinate transportation and outreach efforts and partner to share community resources and strategies.

Sometimes school policies need to be revisited to serve homeless students, says Ellen of the NCFH. Kids who are homeless may act out and need a second chance, prompting administrators to rethink zero-tolerance policies. "These are not bad kids," says Ellen. "They are traumatized kids."

Experts suggest training administrators, teachers, counselors, and even bus drivers on the law and how to work with this population to meet their needs.

Teachers can help by being flexible with assignments and procedures, says senior research associate BethAnn Berliner of WestEd, a research, development, and service agency in Oakland, Calif. A homeless student may not want to hang up a coat, for instance, since it may be his or her only one. Letting the child wear it in class can help to make him or her feel more secure.

"From constantly moving and not having personal space, these students may have difficulty completing tasks," she adds. "Divide big assignments into bite-size pieces." And remember that these kids often live in crowded conditions, without a quiet place to study or computer access. Providing a clipboard to do homework and allowing a paper to be handwritten are simple and reasonable accommodations. If parents can't make a conference, don't presume that they don't care, adds Beth. They may lack transportation or the ability to get away from work.

What the Community Can Do

In Pittsburgh, the homeless children's education fund supports 17 after-school learning centers that serve students in housing centers for the homeless. The centers are equipped with computers and books, and qualified tutors help students with homework on weekday afternoons.

Some of the centers have reading specialists from the local schools who know the curriculum and have a direct line back to the teachers, says Bill Wolfe, the group's executive director. These connections and support through community-based programs help to provide children with access to the best possible education.

In the Adrian Public Schools, Beth has seen funding for her program decrease from $62,000 last year to $39,000 this year. She uses more volunteers and recently worked with a local business on a "Pajama Rama" fundraiser that brought in $8,000 to help bridge the gap. "I'm lucky to have a very giving community," she says.

Shifting the Mindset

Over the past decade, BethAnn says, the landscape has improved, but more needs to be done. "It's really easy to blame children for their behaviors that frustrate us – when they don't bring in their homework or they are destructive in the classroom," she says. "Those are things that we as adults need to deal with rather than blaming the kids. How can you blame a kid for not doing homework when they have no place to do homework?"

Educators should not see homeless students as threatening. Instead, they must dig deep to understand their needs, advises Ellen. "Talk to the kids and find out what's bothering them. Then, in that context, find a way to contain the child. Kids will really perk up if they are responded to appropriately." With the right help, she says, kids can be resilient.

And keep in mind that children who are homeless don't always ask for help, partly because they don't want to be categorized, especially at the high school level, says Denise Ross, supervisor for homeless education programs in Maryland's Prince George's County Public Schools. Of the district's 124,000 students, homeless services helped 2,700 of them last year.

"School is a safe haven for them. They want to be in school," says Denise. "They want to be successful. Sometimes there are other things going on and they need an advocate in the school. They want to learn, and they want to be accepted."

Ways to Support Homeless Students

Try these tips from WestEd in reaching out to homeless students at your school:
  • Change bus routes so homeless students living in shelters or motels are picked up first and delivered last to respect their privacy.
  • Consult service providers in shelters to learn what needs homeless students may have, from transportation to supplies to health care.
  • Create a report card to hand to the next teacher that charts students' progress. A running record of students' strengths and needs will help them to maintain continuity if they switch schools. Also, give students a weekly self-evaluation form to reflect on what they are proud of accomplishing.
  • Adjust homework by eliminating assignments requiring a computer, a TV, or a phone, or offer supplies or school time to complete those tasks.
  • Assign a buddy to each homeless student. They often enter school midyear, and a friend can familiarize them with rules and procedures.
  • Never punish homeless students by taking away a possession, friend time, or recess.
    Source: BethAnn Berliner, Imagine the Possibilities Sourcebook, wested.org
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