PJC In The News

Baltimore Sun Highlights PJC Cases on Homeless Children

The Baltimore Sun ran an excellent article this morning, below, about the instability in children's education caused by homelessness. The PJC's two class actions against Montgomery County and Prince George's County are highlighted. Significantly, the article shows that these suits are having the intended systemic impact: other counties are now seeking the advice of the PJC to design policies and handbooks that comply with the McKinney-Vento Act's requirement that homeless children be provided appropriate and continuous education.

The Struggle for Stability

School systems are challenged to give homeless students an uninterrupted education in a nurturing setting as their numbers grow.

By Laura Loh Sun Staff

July 7, 2004

A week after Colby Kirchner's family became homeless in October, the Anne Arundel County teenager was relieved to return to school and be around his friends, to feel like a normal kid again. But at the end of his first day back, a school bus driver refused to take him to the homeless shelter near Fort Meade where his family was staying. He found himself stranded in a neighborhood more than a mile away. "She said that I wasn't on her schedule, so she dropped me off," said Colby, 16. It was several hours before Colby's mother, who did not own a car, was able to find her son and arrange a ride home for him. Gina Kirchner still gets angry when she thinks about that day. "I was terrified," said the 37-year-old mother of four, who lost her Odenton house after her husband died in a construction accident. "I knew he didn't know the area." Colby's unpleasant experience illustrates a growing problem facing school systems across the Baltimore area. Nearly two decades after Congress passed a law requiring schools to help homeless students obtain an uninterrupted education, school systems continue to grapple with ways to provide them with a stable environment - even as they identify more children as homeless. Since the 2001-2002 school year, state officials report a 56 percent increase in the number of homeless children in Maryland, though some of this jump may be due to better reporting. Although school officials seek to find and assist such students, some children are overlooked as a result of poor training, a lack of resources and, sometimes, outright insensitivity, according to advocates for the homeless. At the same time, schools are coming under more scrutiny. School districts face potential lawsuits over their treatment of homeless children, as well as federal mandates that such students fare well academically. This fall, states will be required for the first time to report how many homeless students are meeting minimum requirements on standardized reading and math tests. At stake are millions in federal grants for homeless education. "There's been a tremendous amount of progress," said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "But in some cases, there's more work to be done." From last July through May, the Maryland Department of Education recorded 8,723 children living on the street, in shelters, cars and campgrounds, or doubled-up with another family as a result of economic hardship. More than 5,100 of them live in the Baltimore area. Nationwide, families now make up about a third of homeless people, according to federal education officials. Officials point to the downturn in the economy and the lack of affordable housing but also say they are getting better at identifying homeless students. Although many school districts have policies designed to protect homeless students, some parents say they were never informed of their children's rights. 3 schools in one year Michelle Franklin, a mother of two young boys and a girl, said no school officials in Baltimore, where she previously lived, or in Anne Arundel County, where she ended up, told her that her children could remain at one school as the family bounced among relatives' homes. During a single school year, her son Phillip, 10, attended three schools. "I felt kind of bad about him having to transfer," said Franklin, 26, who now lives in housing provided by the same shelter assisting the Kirchners. "He was really grumpy and angry for a long time. He was a totally different person." School officials say it is difficult to help some families because they hide their circumstances out of shame or fear. A family that moves into someone else's household doesn't necessarily consider itself homeless. "They feel like as long as there's a roof over their heads, they're not homeless," said Cathy Henry, the homeless liaison for Howard County schools. Before the passage in 2001 of the No Child Left Behind Act, which fortified the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school officials did not always take their responsibilities toward homeless students seriously, advocates say. "There are places where there's been resistance," Duffield said. "I was involved in a lot of training [of school officials]. People sort of rolled their eyes [and felt that] it was just one more thing to do." The revised law defined more clearly the rights of homeless children and prescribed how schools should remove obstacles that could prevent students from obtaining an education. For example, a school must allow a homeless child to enroll, even if he or she lacks the necessary paperwork such as proof of residency. School districts are also required to transport the student from a family's temporary lodgings to his or her original school - sometimes even across county lines - whenever it is feasible and in the child's best interest. And school districts are required to help homeless students succeed academically. To do this, many provide after-school tutoring, summer camps, school supplies and clothes. New federal testing requirements for homeless children mean that teachers and school administrators can't afford to neglect this transient population. Some schools in the past have avoided testing homeless children for fear of lowering their schoolwide test scores, state and federal officials say. The threat of lawsuits also keeps school officials on their toes. The Prince George's and Montgomery County school systems lost federal class action lawsuits alleging that they blocked students from re-entering schools after their families became homeless - a violation of one of McKinney-Vento's most important protections. As a result of settlements in 2001 and last November, the school districts agreed to adopt policy changes and provide sensitivity training for staff, according to the Public Justice Center, which represented the plaintiffs in both cases. "School systems are starting to become more aware," said Francine Hahn, a staff attorney with the Baltimore-based nonprofit. "We were hopeful that, through our lawsuits in Montgomery and Prince George's ... we would also start change in other school districts." The lawsuits appear to have had their intended effect. School officials in Howard County and Baltimore have sought advice from the Justice Center to craft handbooks and policies that comply with federal law. An array of services Whether or not their aim is to avoid lawsuits, school districts have for years offered an array of homeless services. Anne Arundel County school officials go to great lengths to avoid embarrassing homeless children. When they provide them with free backpacks, for example, they choose different colors or styles so that the youngsters will not stand out. In Baltimore County, officials arrange summer field trips for homeless students - to the bowling alley, minor-league baseball games and the zoo - so that the children may have vacation stories to share on the first day of school. Baltimore City schools offer a six-week summer camp to keep homeless children from languishing on the streets. It provides job training for the older students; for the rest, it offers academic and physical activities and two meals a day. But city school officials say they are unable to do as much as they'd like for the roughly 2,000 city students who are homeless each year. "We have the experience that we need to deal with this, but we need more funding," said Louise Fink, director of interagency support for city schools. In Howard, school officials plan to hire a consultant to evaluate the effectiveness of a tutoring program held for homeless students four nights a week. But aside from such efforts, homeless advocates say, schools need to constantly train staff to be sensitive to the needs of homeless children. "All those people who come into contact with those children need to know what homeless children's rights are, [including] bus drivers, secretaries," Hahn said. Such training might prevent incidents like the one involving Colby Kirchner and the bus driver. Paul Stack, the administrator for the county's homeless students at the time, called the incident unfortunate. Stack said that his office worked for several days to figure out a new transportation plan for the Arundel High School 10th-grader because the shelter, Sarah's House, was outside the school's attendance area. Apparently, "the information did not filter" down to the bus driver, Stack said. Although school officials concede that mistakes still happen, they believe they are doing a better job because more students are being identified as homeless and receiving services. Anne Arundel recorded 1,073 homeless children this school year, up from about 600 last year. "I think things are up and working here," Stack said. "That's not to say there's not room for improvement."

Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun

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