Homelessness causes a disruption in a child’s education. The impact of family mobility on a student’s education is the greatest barrier to school success. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations report for Pennsylvania, from the Point in Time Survey conducted in January 2019, there were 2,980 children under the age of 18 identified as residing in emergency shelter or transitional housing, or living in unsheltered conditions.
The definition of “homeless” is broader in the context of homeless education. During the 2017-18 program year, Pennsylvania’s ECYEH Program identified 36,823 students experiencing homelessness. Twenty-one percent of students enrolled that year changed schools two or more times. Changing schools means adapting to new teachers, schedules, friends and many other factors.
Performance may slip until the child adapts to new settings. In addition, research has shown that other students in school not experiencing mobility are negatively impacted by the mobility of their peers. The attention of the child’s caretaker, out of necessity, may center on food, clothing, shelter and safety to the exclusion of education. This may increase the disruption of the child’s education.
Top Ten Educational Barriers
Parents and guardians experiencing homelessness often lack adequate, current information regarding the rights of their children to attend school. In addition, caretakers who are uncertain about tomorrow and concerned about basic needs such as food and shelter often do not view the education of their children as a priority. Parents need to know what actions they should take, get the highest quality of support, and receive the encouragement and guidance needed to enroll and maintain educational progress of their children in school.
Pennsylvania’s Public School Code of 1949, the State Board of Education attendance regulations and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 ensure Pennsylvania’s children experiencing homelessness have access to free education. Local school districts must determine how their policies and procedures may conflict and make necessary adjustments to decrease barriers to school access and academic success.
In some Pennsylvania communities, providers and school district administrators express frustration with a lack of communication, cooperation and follow-up, which results in delays, an inability to track eligible students, overlapping services, and ultimately, underserved and unserved students.
Some students have attended five or more different schools in a given year. Frequent absenteeism is common. This irregular school attendance hampers the child’s educational progress and may interrupt important assessment procedures necessary for a student receiving special or supportive educational programs. It may prevent the student from having the opportunity to meet the same challenging, local and state performance standards all students are expected to meet.
The State and its Local Education Agencies (LEAs) are required to adopt policies and practices to ensure that transportation is provided, at the request of the parent or guardian (or in the case of an unaccompanied youth, the liaison), to and from the school of origin. If the student continues to live in the area served by the LEA in which the school of origin is located, that LEA must provide or arrange transportation. If the student moves to an area served by another LEA, though continuing his or her education at the school of origin, the LEA of origin and the LEA in which the student is living must agree upon a method to apportion responsibility and costs for transportation to the school of origin. If the LEAs cannot agree upon such a method, the responsibility and costs must be shared equally. For more information about addressing transportation barriers, visit the ECYEH website to request the publication entitled “Child Accounting Guidelines” which outlines the rights/responsibilities related to transportation of homeless students, but also describes potential situations and solutions to transportation questions. Besides the regional/site coordinator, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Division of Subsidy Data and Administration can assist in determining effective transportation strategies. Contact the division at (717) 787-5423, ext.1
Families experiencing a crisis, which results in a loss of home and belongings, and/or youth living on their own or estranged from their homes, often are unable to produce school records. When the response for records is slow or delayed, it results in a barrier for the student and school staff who need to make decisions based on known information. This is especially true for students with special needs. Faxing has facilitated the process, along with telephoning health officials to verify immunization records.
Educators need more information about the children experiencing homelessness in their school(s), and how the conditions of homelessness affect their ability to learn, socialize and cope with everyday circumstances. Because of ongoing changes in school district personnel, there is a need for continuous education to further sensitize staff to the multiple aspects of the homeless problem. School personnel must have a common understanding of the relationship between homelessness and the impact of risk factors on the child’s education in order to begin the process of nurturing resiliency and building more effective classroom environments for all children. Teachers and other school personnel need to be encouraged to attend training on homelessness on a regular basis. The network of ECYEH Program Regional and Site Coordinators and other statewide entities provide various professional development opportunities on the local, regional and state levels. For instance, an annual conference entitled “Meeting the Challenge: Educating Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness,” is made available to both school and community partners working with or on behalf of these children and youth.
Parents and guardians experiencing homelessness often lack adequate, current information regarding the rights of their children to attend school. In addition, caretakers who are uncertain about tomorrow and concerned about basic needs such as food and shelter, often do not view the education of their children as a priority. Parents need to know what actions they should take, get the highest quality of support, and receive the encouragement and guidance needed to enroll and maintain educational progress of their children in school.
Students and families experiencing homelessness may be reluctant to share information about their life situation. Parents may be embarrassed and fearful of reactions from school officials who may discover the family is homeless. These things do not have to occur, though, if the lines of communication are open between shelters, agencies, schools and the ECYEH regions. With proper staff training, all families can be welcomed into schools and shelters in a respectful manner. Schools and shelters, therefore, can help families to overcome the temporary disruption in their lives.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act encourages the extension of program services to preschool age children in families experiencing homelessness by clarifying activities that can be funded for these children. School District Homeless Liaisons are required to link eligible preschoolers with educational programs such as Head Start, Even Start and other local preschool programs. However, many of the served families are living in shelters and motels, and move frequently, often out of the geographical area the program serves. Efforts need to not only identify and enroll these preschoolers, but to support the continuity of their early education experience amidst a life of transiency.
Individuals experiencing homelessness face individualized challenges. Many are experiencing the fear and stress of homelessness for the first time, often in unexpected ways. In certain areas, a lack of knowledge of available services prevents the family from finding shelter, safety and peace of mind. Others, like runaway youth, are sometimes unwanted and have trouble in accessing runaway program services. There are also families who are chronically homeless and may have overused the “system,” often burning bridges to available services.
Things You Can Do
Like any other child experiencing disruption in their life, children experiencing homelessness need support, help with adjusting to new teaching styles, assistance with meeting assignments and some basic things like school uniforms or fees for class trips, etc. – they may need an advocate in school.
As an educator, you can make a difference in the success of these children:
- Recognize the importance of a caring environment as the foundation for academic success.
- Strengthen positive connections with families and form partnerships to develop and implement programs that will nurture and reinforce resiliency in children.
- Learn how to use Title I and other federal program funds to provide needed services for children experiencing homelessness.
- Take every opportunity to move from isolated programs with limited outreach to coordinating holistic services for children and youth experiencing homelessness.