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Law Requires Homeless Children Have Access to Public School

By Avi Salzman

REGARDLESS of whether Connecticut welcomes them, any children displaced by Hurricane Katrina who come here must be educated here. That is because of a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act that ensures homeless children have access to public school educations.

The law requires schools to enroll students who are homeless, including those who lost their homes because of a natural disaster. Every school district in the state has a liaison charged with teaching school district workers about the law and identifying homeless students in the area who need schooling. But as dozens of children come to Connecticut, some schools are still learning how to follow the law.

"Many school districts are never asked to deal with this aspect of identifying a child in a homeless situation, because it's not really an issue," said Louis Tallarita, the state coordinator for the McKinney-Vento Act.

In Canton, for instance, Superintendent Anthony Serio, who is also the liaison for his district, said he had enrolled only one homeless family since the law was updated in 2002. Now, he said, a local church group plans to bring a group of Hurricane Katrina evacuees to the town and he has to integrate them into the school system. "We'll be ready," he said.

Mr. Tallarita estimated that he has received more than 50 calls over the last two weeks from administrators asking what to do about students who say they are evacuees from the storm. Most callers had not yet encountered storm victims, but were preparing in advance, he said.

Most of the evacuees already here have friends or family in the state. The students who did arrive at schools were not always expected; they had not been staying in shelters where officials knew they would need to be enrolled in a school. That can lead to confusion, said Diana Bowman, the director of the Center for Homeless Education, an organization financed by the federal Department of Education to give school districts technical assistance on the law.

"When families show up in these shelters, then everyone knows these are displaced families," she said. "In a lot of cases where a family shows up, school districts may not be aware that this is a family who is considered homeless."

Indeed, officials from some Connecticut districts were confused as to whether the students dislocated by the storm should be considered homeless, Mr. Tallarita said. Others wanted to know how to deal with collecting immunization and academic records.

The McKinney-Vento Act deals with those issues. The law, passed in 1987, was strengthened considerably in 2002 with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. It says that if students show up at a school claiming to be homeless, the school should admit them.

Students do not need to prove they are homeless and do not need to provide immunization records on the spot. Those can be obtained later. Even when there is a dispute about enrollment, the law says, "the child or youth shall be immediately admitted to the school in which enrollment is sought." After the child begins taking classes, school districts are supposed to make their own attempts to find records.

The newest version of the law makes every district in the country appoint liaisons to actively seek out homeless children and make sure they are being educated. It also makes schools provide transportation for homeless students who find shelter outside of the district where they had been going to school. Sometimes that means sending a taxi across multiple towns to pick up and drop off a child.

The transportation provision has upset some school officials, Mr. Tallarita said, because they end up paying large sums to transport students long distances and are not always reimbursed fully by the state or federal government for that expense.

Connecticut received $501,000 this year from the federal government to comply with the McKinney-Vento Act, Mr. Tallarita said. Each year, school districts apply for grants from that federal money to cover costs associated with the law. Some of them spend it all on transportation, Mr. Tallarita said, while others use it to pay for the district's liaison.

School districts identified more than 2,000 homeless children in the public school system in the 2003-4 school year, Mr. Tallarita said.

Many of those children, he said, are identified through local shelters, which are often in cities. Because they deal with the law more often, Mr. Tallarita added, cities are often "more on top of what's going on."

The law, however, does not always work. While the Greenwich public schools have accepted several evacuees, one New Orleans mother said a school there initially demanded proof of residency and would not enroll her children without it.

The mother, Tuly O'Neil, who has three boys, escaped New Orleans the day before the hurricane struck, and came to Greenwich, where she and her husband, Terry, used to live and still belong to the Greenwich Country Club. Like many others, she expected to be away from New Orleans for just a few days and brought only a few duffle bags of clothing. After seeing television reports of the flooding on Aug. 30, she realized she would likely be a Connecticut resident for much longer.

Later that day, she and her husband went to the Parkway School in Greenwich to enroll their two school-age sons, explained their situation to the principal and said they did not have a permanent home, Mrs. O'Neil said. The principal, Paula Bleakley, told them they would need to prove their residency in Greenwich before the school could enroll their children, Mrs. O'Neil said.

"Basically we were told that we couldn't go unless we proved that we were living in Greenwich," Mrs. O'Neil said, proof that included utility bills. "We had just escaped the hurricane. What proof did we have?"

Lacking the documents the school said it required, Mrs. O'Neil said she turned to private schools, eventually sending her sons to the Stanwich School in Greenwich. She said she was happy just to get her children into a school, though she already paid for private school in New Orleans.

"Thank God we can do it," she said, "but that's a burden on any family."

Ms. Bleakley did not return phone calls. The assistant superintendent for the Greenwich district, John Curtin, said that Ms. Bleakley did not know whether Mrs. O'Neil's request fell under the act and told her to talk to Mr. Curtin. He said he left messages for the family, but they did not reply.

"We certainly were not trying to exclude anyone," he said.

Mrs. O'Neil said she could understand the principal's hesitancy to enroll her children because it was so soon after the hurricane and many people did not know the extent of the damage.

Mr. Tallarita, who did not know the details of the Greenwich case, says the law is clear. Not allowing a student who is homeless immediate access to the school is a violation. That doesn't mean Greenwich or another school that asked for paperwork faces any fines or sanctions. Mr. Tallarita says that when a school fails to comply with the law, he usually works with officials there to explain the law and their obligations. Sometimes the problem is that the liaison in the district is generally not the person enrolling students; that person, he said, may be unfamiliar with the law.

"Even three years down the road," he said, "we're always looking at compliance as a major issue."

— Avi Salzman
New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/18cthomeless.html


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