The struggle for stability

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

July 07, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

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.

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