Separate Is Still Not Equal

It's easy to imagine that life is hard for homeless school children. But being teased by other students is just the tip of the iceberg -- they may have nowhere to store textbooks, nowhere to study and do homework, and nowhere to get a good night's sleep. But a new study shows that even deeper problems block homeless kids from getting an education.According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), many local school districts establish enrollment requirements that unwittingly deny homeless children the chance to go to school -- and denying access is against the law. The federal McKinney Act of 1987 mandates that homeless children must be given equal access to the same free, public education as provided to all other children and youth, and each state has the responsibility to ensure that barriers to education are removed. But NLCHP says that nearly 80 percent of the homeless shelters they surveyed had found that homeless children are barred access to a public school education for one reason or another.Sally McCarthy, staff attorney at NLCHP and lead author of the report, explains that many schools expect students to show up with birth certificates or medical records. "If a family has fled their home because of abuse, they might not have brought with them copies of medical records or birth certificates; so when a parent goes to enroll the child in school, they might not be allowed to enroll," McCarthy says. "Those types of barriers are supposed to be removed so that the child is not blocked from going to school."Homeless children are also denied access when schools require students to prove residency in the neighborhood or when schools fail to provide transportation options for students who move from shelter to shelter each night. Also, some schools require a child to be enrolled in school by a legal guardian, but a homeless family may have placed a child with a grandparent or friend while the parents search for a place to live.And because school districts had not revised their policies to be in line with the federal law, many homeless service providers -- the people who run shelters and meal programs -- saw more and more homeless children with no place to learn during the day. So, in many cases, homeless service providers started teaching children themselves, setting up small classrooms in shelters or church basements. NLCHP found more than 40 of these separate schools for homeless children -- and although NLCHP attorneys concede these classrooms are run by hard-working and well-meaning people, they warn that the system is inherently unfair."As a result of the failure of state and local school districts to comply with the act, makeshift programs have sprung up," McCarthy says. "They were most meant to be stop-gap measures at first. But in some communities, they have become rooted in the community and people fail to see that the underlying problem is that children don't have access to existing schools. The solution is not to set up these non-schools."In some areas, homeless-only schools have become so established that the local school district automatically refers homeless students to the homeless shelter, thereby further limiting the student's access to the regular public school.Plus, NLCHP says that many of the homeless-only schools cannot meet educational standards. Homeless shelters have very few resources, even compared to under-funded public school districts, and the homeless-only schools are likely to lack a full curriculum. Many are held in sites that do not meet health and safety standards, and few have certified teachers and separate classrooms for separate grades of children. Bret Boyce, another NLCHP staff attorney who worked on the report, says, "The homeless service providers have tried to fill in the gaps, but it doesn't really meet the educational standards -- and it's easy for state authorities to bless this convenience."Boyce admits that some homeless-only schools might not agree with the report. The Thomas J. Pappas Educational Center in Phoenix, Ariz., for example, has its own building, partnerships with local businesses, and a growing base of benefactors. Teachers here point out that homeless children need special counseling, and being in a homeless-only environment allows them to feel more confident and safer than they would in the barb-filled world of public school.Nonetheless, Boyce and McCarthy say that one of the best ways to improve access to schools for homeless children is to simply raise awareness of the federal regulations. "A big problem is a lack of understanding of how to comply with the law," McCarthy says. A McKinney coordinator in each state will receive a copy of the NLCHP report to show that the rules set out by the McKinney Act are not being followed, and NLCHP will work to ensure that the McKinney Act is re-authorized in Congress over the next few months.Awareness of the problem has already lead to improvements in certain areas. In Texas, for example, state law now mandates that students have 30 days to produce immunization records -- but students can start school on the day they show up. "Some school districts have done really innovative things with transportation policies, having flexible bus routes so busses can be rerouted to pick up children at homeless shelters or using taxi vouchers," McCarthy adds.In some cases, schools that were once homeless-only have since joined with local districts and converted their separate facility into supplemental programs. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, "a non-profit organization named A Child's Place that once operated a separate school for homeless children is now collaborating with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to enroll all homeless children in the district in public schools," the report states. "The school system arranges for transportation to school, while A Child's Place provides food, clothing, personal health and school supplies, arranges for referrals to physical and mental health professionals, and provides after-school tutoring programs."This kind of conversion is an ideal evolution of many homeless-only schools, NLCHP says. "We don't want the good-will and energy of these teachers and service provides to go to waste," says Boyce. "We'd like to see them channeled in supplemental services for homeless children, such as mentoring, food and clothing."This article originally appeared on Shewire. Elizabeth Hollander is a Shewire editor.

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