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Increase in Homeless Pupils Poses Unique Challenge to Public Schools

October 4, 2010 at 6:18 PM EDT
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Special correspondent Lee Hochberg reports from Seattle on the rising homelessness for school-age children and the challenges that faces public schools trying to accommodate them.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: children in school, but without a home. Rising homelessness is presenting major challenges to educational systems across the nation. Special correspondent Lee Hochberg reports from Seattle.

WOMAN: You have done the first one. You may continue.

LEE HOCHBERG: These happy faces at Seattle’s First Place School often mask trauma at home. Ian (ph) has lived in four places in just over a year. School staff found him and his family living in a van.

BOY: I want to stay, like, in one place and be stable. It makes it hard for me to study. Then I lose focus.

LEE HOCHBERG: Well, what are you thinking about instead?

BOY: Like, how the next place is going to be, what’s the next place we’re going to live then.

LEE HOCHBERG: Families with children today comprise one-third of the nation’s homeless population. An estimated 1.3 million kids experience homelessness per year. One-quarter of them have witnessed violence. Half suffer anxiety and depression. Teacher Miriam Reed:

MIRIAM REED, teacher: They are very shy. They mumble. hey just don’t want to be noticed. They don’t know whether they are going to disappear the next day. All of them have that uncertainty. They don’t have roots. They don’t have any guarantees.

LEE HOCHBERG: For Ian, school is the most stable part of life. But education for homeless kids is often disrupted. Fewer than 25 percent finish high school.

So, the challenge is how to best educate this growing group. At this privately funded school for the homeless, programs teach them to advocate for themselves and improve their self-confidence. When teachers saw Ian take a backflip off a playground swing, they started an acrobatics class.

But most homeless students attend public school. And many educators say the real challenge is to make public schools provide those accommodations to the homeless. There is a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act that requires schools make those accommodations.

But results have been mixed, as many schools simply don’t do it. The law is supposed to work like this. Schools appoint homeless liaisons, like Tacoma’s Tammy Williams (ph), to go to shelters and give students needed supplies and locate homeless kids who need help getting into school.

WOMAN: And so I’m not sure if she has them enrolled. Did she say?

WOMAN: She has. They’re all in school.

WOMAN: OK. Good.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nationally, public schools identified more than 950,000 homeless students last year. But schools didn’t serve an estimated 400,000 other homeless kids.

Twelve-year-old Deion Pousey (ph) came to Seattle this summer to visit his aunt and grandmother. Meanwhile, his mother in Houston became homeless. His relatives tried to enroll him in Seattle schools, but the district rejected him. Grandmother Emma Wilson:

EMMA WILSON, grandmother: Everything we done, we hit brick walls, we hit brick walls. We needed paperwork.

LEE HOCHBERG: McKinney-Vento guarantees youths like Deion immediate enrollment, without residency or medical records, which homeless kids rarely have.

But Seattle demanded both, and two pieces of mail addressed to his homeless mother, two more addressed to his aunt, and school records from Houston.

EMMA WILSON: I told them, what you want us to do, have him walk the street, walk the street? Then he will get arrested. So would I? What do you want us to do? Well, we need paperwork. We can’t get paperwork because we can’t get in touch with the mother. The mother is homeless.

LEE HOCHBERG: We joined the family one morning, a day after they had spent three more hours trying to enroll Deion.

Youth advocate Lark Van Stone (ph) had spoken to Seattle’s homeless liaison.

WOMAN: I explained the situation, explained how he’s between houses. She said, he is not homeless. He doesn’t fall under this act.

LEE HOCHBERG: They tried one more time.

WOMAN: So, we are here to get enrolled.

MAN: Great. Good.

WOMAN: This is Deion.

MAN: Hello, Deion. How are you? Hi.

WOMAN: And he is in a situation where he’s between houses.

MAN: OK. Well, welcome to Seattle, the Seattle public schools. I’m going to get some forms and I’m going to get you started here.

LEE HOCHBERG: This time, district personnel enrolled Deion, no questions asked.

WOMAN: But because he’s an unaccompanied, homeless minor, we don’t need all that paperwork.

MAN: Sure. Yes, that’s right.

WOMAN: OK. Great.

MAN: That’s absolutely right. So, it looks like everything is in order here.

LEE HOCHBERG: Advocate Van Stone wondered, after three months of trying, what had changed. So, previously you were rejected?

WOMAN: Yes.

LEE HOCHBERG: And then today?

WOMAN: Magic. It was magic.

MAN: I’m happy, so I can get in school. I always loved for school for my whole life. I can’t wait.

LEE HOCHBERG: The district’s homeless liaison, Ruth McFadden, came down to give him free school supplies, but was at a loss to explain to us why he had been turned away earlier.

WOMAN: Maybe they didn’t mention that they were homeless when they first came in?

LEE HOCHBERG: The family strongly denied that. And school critics, like Seattle attorney Casey Trupin, say, even if that were true, the school should have recognized the child was homeless.

CASEY TRUPIN, attorney: They have to identify students who are homeless, and then provide services to help them.

LEE HOCHBERG: Trupin, whose law firm advocates for the homeless, says McKinney-Vento requires schools to respond to any hints that a family is homeless, as many are ashamed to admit it.

He notes Seattle identified 6 percent fewer homeless students last year than the year before, at a time homelessness statewide increased 12 percent. Trupin fears it’s an intentional effort not to identify students who would cost the district money.

Two years ago, in New York State, 37 percent of school districts failed to identify even one student as homeless.

CASEY TRUPIN: There’s no other way to see that than that schools are not identifying homeless students within their midst, because identifying a homeless student may come — may bring about a cost to the school district.

LEE HOCHBERG: Costs like transporting homeless students. To minimize school changes that can set students back six months or more, McKinney-Vento allows homeless kids like Samantha Williams to stay in her same school if she moves to a new shelter. The school is required to provide transportation. Williams has a turbulent family life and has moved between four temporary homes around Tacoma in two years. The 15-year-old was moving again when we met her in September.

So, you’re heading…

SAMANTHA WILLIAMS, homeless student: Wherever — stay with a friend for a little while, and then it’s pretty much whatever from there.

LEE HOCHBERG: Amidst ongoing trauma at home, school has been her beacon.

SAMANTHA WILLIAMS: Without school, I don’t know where I would be. Math equations, two plus two is four, you can never get that wrong. I mean, the liver filters your blood. There’s no wrong in that. But when it comes to home life, it’s very confusing.

Yes, I don’t know if I can do this.

LEE HOCHBERG: But, last winter, when she moved 10 miles away to escape a threatening home situation, her school offered her only city bus passes for transportation, a daily round trip trek of five buses and three-and-a-half-hours on the road, all without a winter coat.

SAMANTHA WILLIAMS: I had to get up about 4:30 or so. It really discouraged me from going to school and stuff. Sometimes, I would just stay home.

LEE HOCHBERG: After five weeks, she got legal help. And her school, the Clover Park School District near Tacoma, changed the arrangement.

The district denied our request for an interview, but, in an e-mail, noted it spent $9,000 by year’s end on Samantha’s transportation. It says it isn’t adequately funded to carry out the requirements of McKinney-Vento.

Congress will revisit McKinney-Vento funding this year. Currently, only 11 percent of schools win grants to implement the law. Those 11 percent end up identifying half of all of the homeless students identified in public schools. Very little funding is available for transportation costs.

Ian graduated recently from the First Place School, celebrating a period of stability. But the lease on his family’s subsidized apartment was over. Later that day, they were packing up to move and faced homelessness and new school challenges again.