Expanding Education Opportunities for Youth

The phone rings at Volunteers of America in South Dakota. It’s a guidance counselor from the local high school. He knows a student who’s been missing school and falling asleep in class. He suspects the student might be homeless. What should he do?

That’s where Stephanie Graeb steps in.

“We go to the school, talk to the student about his situation, and if appropriate, we let him know what kind of help we can offer,” says Graeb, the independent living program director at Volunteers of America.

Recognizing that education helps facilitate successful transition to adulthood, programs like Volunteers of America are increasingly collaborating with high schools, colleges and universities, and vocational schools. Through legislation such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act and the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program (CFCIP), transitional living programs (TLPs) and CFCIPs are helping to promote and expand education opportunities for youth moving toward self-sufficiency.

Graeb has built such strong relationships with schools in her community that they are now one of the primary referral sources for TLP and CFCIP youth at her agency. And she, in turn, knows that the schools will do all they can to help these homeless young people succeed.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act

Graeb and her colleagues have the McKinney-Vento Act to thank for much of the progress in seeing homeless young people through to their high school diplomas. The Act was designed to reduce barriers such as transportation and residency and documentation requirements (birth certificates or proof of immunization) that have often stymied these youth from enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school.

McKinney-Vento gives youth who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian, or “unaccompanied youth,” the right to attend the school either nearest to where they are living or where they were last enrolled (“school of origin”). Decisions regarding school placement are to be made in the best interest of the young person. Unaccompanied youth also have the right to:

  • go to school with students who are not homeless—students cannot be separated from the regular school program because they are homeless;
  • obtain a written statement of their rights when they enroll;
  • enroll immediately without school, medical, or similar records;
  • get transportation to their school of origin;
  • participate fully in school activities;
  • have the opportunity to meet the same high academic achievement standards as all students;
  • be automatically eligible for Title I services, such as free lunch, as well as services designed to meet the unique needs of homeless youth that are above and beyond the regular Title I programs.

States, however, have different timelines for meeting these objectives and may also define the needs of homeless youth differently than service providers.

If a State or local school district has laws or policies that conflict with the McKinney-Vento Act, the Act overrules those laws or policies. If you feel a school has not followed the McKinney-Vento Act’s requirements:

  • Call the homeless education liaison at your local educational agency (LEA) or the State coordinator for homeless education.
  • Contact the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) at 1-800-308-2145 or homeless@serve.org.

According to the McKinney-Vento Act, children and youth “awaiting foster care placement” are eligible to receive services; however, States and districts have wide-ranging interpretations of the term. NCHE recommends discussing the eligibility of youth in foster care with your school district’s homeless education liaison.

Chafee Foster Care Independence Program: Educational and Training Vouchers

Photograph of a young man smiling with a school environment in the background.Many young people involved in the child welfare system face the same educational challenges as youth who are homeless. Youth in foster care often are separated from family members and friends, move around a lot, and face unfamiliar home and school environments.

To support postsecondary education and training for foster and former foster care youth, the Chafee Educational and Training Voucher Program provides up to $5,000 per year to eligible youth attending universities, community colleges, and vocational schools. Youth otherwise eligible for services under a State’s Chafee Foster Care Independence Program are eligible to receive vouchers.

That voucher and a little encouragement from program staff can go a long way. This spring, 23 young people in Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s CFCIP and TLP, along with a half-dozen staff, will board a bus in Washington, DC and head south. After visiting six historically Black colleges in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the prospective college freshmen should have a pretty realistic view of the academic and social opportunities that await them in college.

Erica DeBardeleben, educational advocate at Sasha Bruce, has been planning the annual week-long college tour and preparing the young people going on the trip. They discuss topics such as application essays, interviewing skills, preparing for college, possible majors, and financial aid. “How to pay for college is definitely a big concern for the young people we work with,” she says.

Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce, thinks youth in both the TLP and CFCIP have benefitted from having a full-time educational advocate on staff.

In the fall, DeBardeleben helped arrange a college fair for young people at her agency. Eighteen local colleges and vocational programs came and talked about the programs they offer. Students could apply onsite and get on-the-spot decisions. One young woman was particularly excited to be accepted to the cosmetology school of her choice.

DeBardeleben, who works so closely with these young people, shares their enthusiasm at each success. “Because they’ve had so many challenges,” she says, “some people think that helping these kids get through high school or earn a GED is a ‘big enough’ achievement. But I know they can do more.”

College tours and college fairs help young people imagine a life beyond their present circumstances, she says. Chafee education and training vouchers can help them achieve it.

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