The Bus is Leaving. Is Everyone on Board?

Once again, it’s back-to-school season. Even if you don’t have school-age children in the home, it’s impossible to miss. Ads for clothes and school supplies, tips for making better school lunches and advice on dealing with bullies are filling up circulars and inboxes. For kids whose parents are engaged, returning to school is a given. But an estimated 1 to 2 million homeless youth also return to school each year, many as unaccompanied ‘runaways’ or ‘throwaways’ without parents to help them prepare. For youth experiencing homelessness and housing instability, attending school can offer a crucial sense of normalcy and constancy. And thanks to the federal McKinney-Vento Act, no one can take that away.

McKinney-Vento legislation dictates that all school districts designate liaisons to facilitate educational access and supportive services for homeless youth. Liaisons (often guidance counselors or home-school coordinators) connect young people with community resources and advocate on their behalf to get the support they need for school success. Among the most significant protections offered by the Act are students’ rights to attend their school of origin or school of choice (no matter where they’re living temporarily), the school’s responsibility to provide transportation, and the right to immediate school enrollment even without proper documentation (academic records, proof of immunization, identification, etc.). Furthermore, a new toolkit put out by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth suggests schools also extend access to resources like showers, laundry facilities, school uniforms and safe places to study outside regular school hours.

Being willing (and mandated) to assist homeless youth is important but many schools remain shockingly unaware of the scope of the problem. Knowing one’s responsibilities and preparing to act don’t benefit anyone if couch-surfing young people remain invisible to the system. Back when I was responsible for organizing the annual one-day homeless count required for HUD grantees, I talked with liaisons who took their roles seriously and genuinely wanted to help. But more often than not, their forms were returned to me blank, or worse yet, with post it notes slapped on that said ‘No homeless students.’ I worked at the local drop-in center and the shelter; I knew kids personally who were falling through cracks in the system.

It wasn’t until I learned about the Transient/Homeless Youth Estimation Project that I saw a way communities could do better. If guidance counselors, pediatricians, social workers and police officers couldn’t see these kids, who could? Well, it turns out their peers can. Youth Catalytics’ Estimation Tool gets as close to the source as possible – it asks kids themselves about anyone they know their age who is homeless or living somewhere temporarily. The survey gathers enough information to guard against counting youth more than once and has been piloted in four New England high schools. The most significant finding in its pilot test? That schools underestimate the number of youth in their district who need assistance. Among participating schools, the percentage of homeless youth was relatively uniform; between 10 and 16 percent of the student body fit McKinney Vento definitions.

(Before anyone points out that most homeless youth aren’t in school, let me clarify: these findings don’t say that 10-16% of young people attending any given high school are homeless or transient. What they say, and very consistently, is that the number of homeless/transient youth known to the students filling out the survey equals 10-16% of the size of the high school student body. Meaning that if there are 1,000 students in a high school, they will report that together they know 100 to 160 different young people no longer living at home. Most of those friends or acquaintances will have dropped out of school by that point, but some will still be there.)

Federal law holds schools accountable for meeting the educational needs of youth experiencing homelessness, including responsibility for identifying students who need assistance. Tools like the Transient/Homeless Youth Estimation survey can open the door to academic support for kids who may otherwise miss the bus. It’s a process that can be originated by anyone – community-based organizations, towns, parent associations – so, if you want to promote education this back-to-school season, share these resources with a school near you.

Looking for some more information about how to get (and keep) disconnected young people in school? The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth is the place to turn. They offers lots of material on their website that can help you interpret McKinney-Vento and see what it means for you and the young people in your care.

~ Youth Catalytics Research Associate Jen Smith

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