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"Chicago's Homeless Children and the Failure of Schools,"

by Bernadine Dohrn May 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

Federal law (the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. sees. 11431-11432, passed in 1987) provides considerable protection for the educational needs of homeless children. States and local education agencies are required, among other things, to ensure that homeless children enroll and succeed in school. Homeless families may chose either to have their children continue to attend their "home school" or enroll in the school nearest their place of shelter, and all schools must eliminate barriers to education for homeless children.

Over a period five months, members of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago's Homeless Advocacy Project interviewed women and children at 20 of the City of Chicago's homeless family shelters jut their educational needs and their experiences with schools. While it was by no means a comprehensive or massive statistical study, between March 1 and August 1, 1991 the interview teams spoke with 142 families which included 588 children, 319 of whom were school age.

By the time a family has arrived at a 90-day homeless shelter, they have exhausted a range of other options with relatives and friends, who often are also too poor to offer long-term support. They have lost their possessions and their hope that this will be a short-term problem. The acceptance of shelter accommodations is a final and desperate attempt to keep their family intact.

Sadly, rather than fording in the private or public support system any recognition of their needs, families are instead humiliated for their efforts, infantalized, and all but stripped of their resourcefulness. Husbands and fathers cannot stay with their families; boys over twelve cannot stay in homeless family shelters. Money and public aid is managed by shelter administrators, and rules are abundant and often punitive. The bravery and every-morning courage of women getting their children up, fed and dressed in a huge dormitory of families, transporting them to a strange school, and themselves going out into Chicago to look for an affordable apartment is part of the unacknowledged but genuinely heroic stuff of life.

Families and the women and children who lose their housing do not refer to themselves as "homeless." It is a condition which is not reported by mothers or children back in their old neighborhood. Almost no one returns to their "home school" to tell the principal that the family has become homeless. In Chicago, school administrators and teachers can identify no homeless population at their schools, even when that school has a 60% turnover or mobility rate within a single school year.

The Explosion of Numbers

According to a 1989 U.S. Conference on Mayors' report, one in every four homeless persons in cities is a child. One in three of the homeless in Chicago are families, primarily women and children. A conservative estimate prepared by the U.S. Department of Education in 1990 is that 272,773 school-age children were homeless, not including 56,783 preschool children. Everyone agrees that the number and percentage of homeless families continues to rise.

Transiency and Instability in Schools

As an example of the broader crisis, many of the elementary school personnel interviewed reported that their school transiency rate ranged from 30-65%. The officially reported average mobility or turnover rate in elementary schools in Chicago is 40.3%

This means that in a second grade classroom of 30 children, 13 will have transferred to another school or be missing school before the end of the school year. This is a painful experience for the children who remain, as well as for those who must leave. A vast proportion of the school age population, of whom the homeless are only a small part, contributes to this level of turnover and transiency within the public schools. The figures indicate a large population of chronically impoverished families, moving frequently, leaving substandard housing and violence, attempting to pay rent above their incomes, going from crisis to crisis. This vast and invisible level of instability in the Chicago public schools has alarming implications for the growth and education of millions of children - far bigger than the homeless population - and presents a challenge for children, parents, teachers, school reform advocates, and citizens.

The Meaning of Homelessness for Children

Children who have lost their housing and are staying somewhere temporarily -- whether it is with relatives, in a shelter, in a car or on the streets -- have almost always lost their school, their friends, their possessions and their daily routine. The familiar has disappeared. The comfortable sense of their home and school where they are known, recognized and regularly see their friends is crucial to learning, even when their school is below average in achievement or is a difficult or dangerous place to be. Homeless children are cut adrift, and endure a sharp sense of loss.

Any school transfer, even an optimum situation of a planned family move from one city to another or a move involving upward mobility, involves a significant loss of learning time for a child. When a child has also lost her home and experiences the stress of family upheaval, the additional loss of school context may well be devastating. Thus continuity and stability are widely recognized as basic educational needs, and provide the framework for the federal law.

The educational consequences of multiple disruptions are thorough and unrelenting: truancy, school failure, repeating grades, and drop-outs. Homeless children who miss significant amounts of schooling or transfer repeatedly in a given year are held back a grade, fail to obtain credit for time served in school, lose hope, and are on a track of school failure. The personal devastation, particularly for a child trying to hold on to something with a future, is enormous. The social cost is calamitous.

Federal Law Ignored

The McKinney Act identifies transiency and discrimination as fundamental problems in the education of homeless children and provides access to education, with the option to continue schooling in the child's home school, if that is in the best interests of the child. The central provision of the law assures each homeless child "access to a comparable free, appropriate public education in the mainstream school environment."

The McKinney Act requires the provision of comparable services to homeless children, including transportation, school meals, handicapped and gifted programs, vocational education, bilingual programs and before- and after-school programs. It requires the removal of barriers, including revision of state and local residency requirements, and provides that school records, immunization and academic records be available in a timely fashion.

*The project found that 75% of the school age children of families interviewed attended three or more schools during the 1990-1991 school year.

*More than 2/3 of the parents indicated that they would prefer to have their child continue at their home school and would have done so if they had known it was possible, or had been offered some form of transportation.

*Not a single parent or child interviewed had been offered a choice of school enrollment, none had heard of the McKinney Act or been informed of options by school personnel or shelter employees.

*No family interviewed received transportation assistance to school except families whose children attended special education schools.

*Nineteen families continued to send their children back to their home school in their original neighborhood without telling anyone that they were homeless. They transported their children at great personal sacrifice.

*School personnel and principals are unaware of the existence of homeless children in their schools, know of no written policies, and lack knowledge of the special rights enumerated in the McKinney Act, but all experience significant problems associated with the rapid turnover and transiency of students.

*There was no notice to parents, no guidelines for determining the best interests of the child, no appeal procedures, and there has never been a proceeding to determine "best interest."

*Transfer of school records, immunization records, birth certificates and guardianship documents occurs erratically, and frequently only after long delays. Records are transferred manually; no school used computer, fax or telephone verification to enroll children.

*Families lost their valuable slots in Head Start, pre-kindergarten or 0-3 preschool programs.

*Shelter practices varied widely regarding education of homeless children. Some had developed active and ongoing relationships with principals, local school councils and school counselors, one going so far as to institute a regular program of visitation to shelters by teachers and personnel in the nearby school to familiarize them with the needs of homeless families and shelter staff. Approximately 1/4 of the shelter operators had developed agreements with nearby schools permitting resident children to enroll immediately upon verbal verification by the shelter that immunizations were up-to-date. Only one shelter had a certified teacher on staff who worked actively with pre-school children during the day and with older children after school.

*Five of the City of Chicago's family shelters are domestic violence shelters. However, women from all types of shelters repeatedly told interviewers that domestic violence was the direct cause of their homelessness. Families fleeing an abuser may have very specific needs for school placement away from their previous neighborhood and school.

*Children are never offered supplemental tutoring or catch-up help in before- or after-school programs. Instead, they are steered into special education classes if not already so classified.

The cumulative effect of multiple school transfers contributes to underachievement, being held back and loss of continuity in learning. Parents complain that each transfer results in a negative impact on their child's academic performance, attendance and attitude. Homelessness has a dramatic impact on the number of schools attended, which itself correlated with the number of shelters in which a child stayed. The policy of bouncing homeless families through the shelter network must cease in favor of real efforts to place all families who desire in their home communities.

The Larger Dimensions

Critical is the underlying need for affordable housing for low-income families. Chronic poverty and a continual crisis in housing is creating a large population of transient children unable to remain in a school where they belong, where they feel identified with friends and some adults, and where they are able to learn and grow. Without access to continuity in schooling, they are doomed to failure and instability. Transferring from two or three schools in a given year is ruinous for a child - and a school system. Compassionate public policy for homeless children turns out to be effective and practical social policy for public education, for it impacts a population far greater than the "technically" homeless.

The simpler aspects of the problem are removal of barriers to schooling, the very issues addressed by the McKinney Act. Because these barriers are also faced by a significant percentage of schoolage children who may not be "homeless" are also highly transient, the solutions which allow access to education for homeless children are vital to addressing a much bigger crisis for all transient children in education and schooling.

The Project (HAP) has provided and is providing legal services to homeless families, including those with education-related problems. In the Fall of 1991, HAP threatened litigation against the state and local boards of education and attempted to resolve McKinney Act non-compliance issues through negotiation. Recently, that process has come to a halt. Barring unforeseen developments, litigation will be initiated before the end of the 1991-92 school year to compel compliance with both state and federal law guaranteeing access to education for homeless children.

Bernadine Dohrn a PRRAC grantee, directs the Center for Juvenile Law of Northwestern Univ. Law School.

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