Number of homeless students climbs

McKinney-Vento law ensures free education to those with no home

They sleep in cars. In parks. In shelters. On the sofas of generous relatives or friends.

They are the more than 1.3 million homeless children nationwide.

Of that total, more than 21,000 live in Washington state, according to numbers submitted to the federal government last week.

Collected by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the numbers show that during 2009-10, the state reported 21,826 homeless students, up 5 percent from the previous year and up 56.5 percent from 2005-06.

“There are a lot of factors that could explain the increase,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for the education of homeless children and youth at the OSPI. “The biggest is probably more awareness. Five years ago, many districts didn’t know that this was a requirement. We’re seeing better reporting now than we did then. The present economy also may be driving part of the increase. We have had episodic increases at certain points due to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and our own flooding in Lewis County in 2007.”

Dyer cautioned that the numbers are probably low. “We still have some reporting issues,” she said. “Plus because of the stigma attached to homelessness, some families don’t tell others they are homeless.”

Collecting and reporting homeless numbers is a requirement of the federal McKinney-Kento Act, which applies to all homeless people. Title VII of the act concerns education; and it ensures that homeless children have access to “the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.”

McKinney-Vento defines a student as homeless if he or she lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate residence. In practical terms, the student is classified as homeless if he or she lives in emergency or transitional shelters; motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds; shared housing due to loss of housing or economic hardship; hospitals secondary to abandonment or awaiting foster care placement; cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing or similar situations; or Public or private places not ordinarily used as sleeping accommodations.

The lack of a stable home puts tremendous pressure on homeless students, according to OSPI. Mobility rates are higher than students in homes, absentee rates are higher, health problems are more prevalent and graduation rates are lower.

Under McKinney-Vento, homeless students must be given the same access to education as other students and cannot be separated from other students. Where feasible, the student can remain in the district he or she was in before becoming homeless and is provided transportation to and from school.

Washington state receives about $850,000 per year from the federal government to help homeless students. In addition, the state received $1.3 million in federal stimulus money for homeless education. That money was disbursed as one-time grants ranging between $3,500 and $30,000 per district.

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