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Lessons Learned: Opening School Doors for Homeless Students No Easy Assignment

study hard, little girl
Truth be told, some school district administrators still turn away homeless students. Were it not for a strong federal law more would try it. Since 2002, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act has been prying and propping open school doors to the category of kids most misunderstood, misidentified, and misjudged: students without homes.

In 2012-13, nearly 1.2 million homeless students were identified in schools nationwide according to the U.S. Department of Education. This record number reflects an underreported, unprecedented upswing of 72% since 2006.

What’s little known, and a point of pride for the Land of Lincoln, is how the federal law became so, well, good. The story goes back 20 years, to 3 children who were denied the right to return to their schools because they had to move into a nearby homeless shelter in an adjacent school district. Their mother wanted the best--school stability--for her children and started, unbeknownst to those involved, a civil rights movement that led to first the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, and the morphing of that hallmark legislation into the McKinney-Vento act.

A concerted grassroots effort in the spring of 1994 successfully pushed passage of the first state level legislation guiding schools to immediately admit (or maintain them in their school of origin) homeless students without impossible piles of proof of residency, a hopeless task acting as an insurmountable barrier for untold families and youth. Schools were directed to facilitate access to the school and medical records, provide supplies and uniforms, ensure free lunches and transportation, and to make sure these kids get the help they need to thrive in schools. Each district had to appoint a homeless liaison to coordinate these efforts. Quite a change from previous hit and miss practices.

HEAR US Inc. is sponsoring a 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the IL Education for Homeless Children Act on May 8 in Aurora, IL, featuring Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. Information at

This test-crazy education atmosphere provides unspoken incentives for schools to turn away kids who might bring the sacred scores down. Kids still get illegally turned away from schools. Sometimes it’s accidental. Other times it's a flagrant disregard of the law. At least the law stands strong, and legal advocates jump into the fray when violations are brought to light, something that probably doesn’t happen often enough. Parents, guardians and youth have been given more tools to self-advocate, including the HEAR US 11-minute video, REACH, which demystifies the law.

Why all the fuss about kids getting an education? In my 3 decades of working with homeless families and youth, I’ve noticed a trend: most students realize that education is their ticket out of the miserable existence of poverty and homelessness. True, today it’s a steeper climb to get the education needed to crawl out of the abyss of hopelessness, but as the old saying goes, “the first rule of holes is to stop digging.”

While schools have gotten better at identifying homeless students, thanks to powerful tools like My Own Four Walls, the acclaimed 20-minute documentary produced by my organization, HEAR US, and the array of useful materials available through the National Center on Homeless Education, it’s still an uphill climb. But it’s worth it…

On Easter Sunday I received a call from Tyeast, the mother of the 3 children denied their right to stay in their schools of origin 20 years ago. I had lost contact with her after she left our shelter.

Tyeast proudly recounted her kids’ progress: an engineer, doctor and chef. Two are married with kids. She worked for years in the medical field until recently being sidelined with a chronic painful illness. She remembered the fight from 20 years ago.  She was smart enough to know it was worth the fight then, and her kids prove that the effort to provide school stability paid off. It’s an assignment that needs continuous checking.