Kelly Fleming remembers a time, just a few years ago, when enrolling one of her clients in a new school—or keeping the youth in his or her school of origin—meant lots of legwork. Fleming, director of youth services at Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency, a Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee in central New York, and her staff often had to meet with school officials, make phone calls to the local department of education, and submit requests to the youth's old school for immunization and education records. Sometimes, weeks passed before a young person was back in the classroom.
But things have changed. Last fall, Fleming says, "we didn't have to have a single meeting with a school to enforce a child's rights."
Other youth service providers around the country echo Fleming's assertion that—though challenges remain—accessing public school education has become easier for runaway and homeless youth since the 2001 reauthorization of a Federal law that mandates immediate access to public schools for homeless youth, whether or not they live with a parent or guardian.
Part of the No Child Left Behind Act, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Improvement Act of 2001 gives unaccompanied youth, those young people who do not live with a legal guardian, the right to stay at the schools they have been attending or to move to schools serving the neighborhoods where they currently live, depending on their "best interest" (as defined by the law) and the feasibility of remaining at the original school.
The McKinney-Vento Act, which went into effect in July 2002, also requires that all school districts appoint a liaison to advocate on behalf of homeless children and youth and their families and work with local service providers to ensure youth have access to school and to social services. In addition, each State must have a Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth responsible for ensuring that public schools throughout the State understand and comply with the law.
In 2003, the Runaway, Homeless and Missing Children Protection Act, which reauthorized the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, included a provision regarding runaway and homeless youth program coordination with the McKinney-Vento Act. Youth-serving agencies that receive Basic Center and Transitional Living Program funding from FYSB must work closely with school district homeless liaisons to ensure that runaway and homeless youth understand the educational services available to them.
By requiring schools to allow students to attend even if they do not have permanent addresses, immunization or school records, or identification such as birth certificates, the McKinney-Vento Act has helped school districts make progress removing barriers for homeless and unaccompanied youth.
"When the [McKinney-Vento Act] went under No Child Left Behind, all kinds of doors opened up for us," says M. Gay Thomas, Virginia Beach City Public Schools' liaison to homeless students since 1997. "Before, there were guidelines, there were recommendations. Now it's 'We must' ... It's made a tremendous difference."
Still, schools may have more questions about unaccompanied youth than youth with families, says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "When kids don't have legal guardians, schools want to know 'What if they get hurt? What about extracurricular activities? What about liability? Why are they on their own?'"
She adds, "Some school administrators have difficulty understanding the scary concept of a kid needing to leave home because it's not a safe place for them."
Thomas acknowledges that school administrators are more likely to respond proactively and call her in response to a disaster, such as the many students displaced by Hurricane Katrina last year, than they are to identify a single unaccompanied youth. But, she says, "Once we've confirmed that [students are] homeless, my schools know we need to immediately enroll them. Then we work on the services they need."
To verify a young person's homelessness, Thomas and another staff member interview the young person as well as teachers, service providers, and other adults familiar with the youth's situation.
Procedures for enrolling youth differ from State to State and among school districts. Some allow young people to enroll themselves or have the school district homeless liaison handle enrollment, while others use caregiver forms to allow adult caregivers, including service providers, to enroll youth.
In addition to mandating immediate enrollment, the McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to provide transportation for young people who wish to attend their original schools. Virginia Beach Public Schools does this in a number of ways: by transporting youth via regular bus routes when possible, by providing gas vouchers, and occasionally by hiring taxis. Among the district's expenditures to ensure education for homeless young people, "This is our most costly endeavor," Thomas says.
Lee Trevithick, executive director of Cocoon House, a FYSB grantee in Everett, Washington, says that youth housed by his agency often choose to attend their home school, which might be 40 to 50 miles away. "A lot of them do that even if it means getting up at 4 in the morning," Trevithick says. "The connections and support systems at their home school make them want to remain there."
After enrolling an unaccompanied youth, Thomas's department works to get the young person a physical exam, free or for a reduced fee, at the local health department and helps the youth obtain school records and get a birth certificate issued.
The district also helps with other obstacles faced by homeless youth. "Sometimes they don't have clothing adequate for school," Thomas says. Using funds authorized by McKinney-Vento, schools can purchase emergency clothing for homeless children and youth. Virginia Beach Public Schools also solicits donations of clothing and gift certificates to help young people dress for school.
In addition, Thomas and B.J. McGrath, a full-time school social worker, coordinate referrals to other service, such as housing and health care.
Some homeless advocates and youth service providers worry that traditional public schools don't have the expertise or flexibility to successfully teach young people who have drifted in and out of schools because of homelessness or because their families move frequently.
"Our kids don't adapt well to the traditional classroom," Trevithick says. Until 2001, Cocoon House addressed that concern by running its own school staffed by local school district teachers. The school closed its doors because of provisions in the McKinney-Vento Act prohibiting school districts from segregating students, either in schools or in classrooms, on the basis of their homelessness. (Four counties—San Joaquin County, Orange County, and San Diego County, California, and Maricopa County, Arizona—received exemptions allowing them to continue to run existing schools for homeless children and youth.)
Though establishing schools at homeless shelters violates the McKinney- Vento Act, school districts can sponsor "supplemental services," such as tutoring and afterschool programs for homeless young people, at schools and at shelters. (In fact, school districts are required to use a portion of the funds they receive under Title I, Part A, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act, to provide educationally related support services to youth in shelters and other locations where disadvantaged youth may live.)
And alternative schools that serve a range of young people based on educational needs not related to housing status can help young people unaccustomed to the structure of traditional schools, Duffield and Trevithick say. Many districts also offer night programs for young people who work full-time to support themselves.
Both youth service professionals and homeless education advocates emphasize the need for schools and service providers to work together to ensure that school remains a stable element in the often chaotic lives of runaway and homeless youth.
"There needs to be a relationship between service providers and schools so schools know when youth will be showing up," says Diana Bowman, director of the National Center for Homeless Education, a clearinghouse funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
The relationship Bowman refers to is a two-way street. Sheila Morrison, service coordinator at the Centers for Youth and Families, a FYSB grantee in Little Rock, Arkansas, keeps track of youth in mental health facilities who are referred to her shelter. She sends paperwork to the schools two weeks before the young people are discharged to the shelter, so that everything is in order when a youth shows up at the school's doors.
In Virginia Beach, McGrath reaches out to service providers by attending local homeless coalition meetings.
"She's developed a good relationship with service providers," Thomas says, "so they know what is needed."
Thomas also keeps educators aware of the issues homeless youth face, chatting with principals, offering trainings for teachers and administrators, and meeting with guidance counselors once or twice a year to remind them of the services available to homeless youth.
For Thomas, turning away a young person is not an option. "I'm going to err on the side of getting the student the education," she says. "If they're going to come to school, I'm going to educate them."