6 school stability best practices for homeless students

By taking these actions, a homelessness expert says schools can help this group of students to continue their education without disruptions.
By: | December 14, 2020
Getty Images, AprilAndertonGetty Images, AprilAnderton

School stability is an essential component for a student’s academic success. It’s even more important for students who are homeless because of emotional and social attachments, explains Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education.

“Something in [homeless students’] lives that stays the same when everything else is changing, including where they live, is critical for their success in school,” Duffield says. “Children who stay in the same school maintain relationships with their peers and with their teachers. They can have continuity in their instruction.”

Here are six best practices Duffield suggests for schools to follow to ensure that school stability is provided to homeless students:

1. Inform homeless parents about their rights.

Many families that are homeless or that are about to become homeless don’t know their rights under the law, according to Duffield. Therefore, schools should ensure families understand, for example, that they have the right under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to stay in the school of origin. 42 USC 11432(g)(3)(I)(i); Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program Non-Regulatory Guidance, 119 LRP 22555 (EDU 08/27/18), N-4.

“[Parents] need to know that if it is in the best interest to stay in the school of origin, the school is required to provide transportation to keep them in that same school,” she says. “They also need to know that if the school thinks that it is not in the student’s best interest to stay in the school of origin, the school has to provide a written explanation and to refer the parent or the youth to dispute the school’s decision.”

2. Discuss options, reduce disputes.

Talking to parents experiencing homelessness is the first step to learn whether staying in the school of origin is the best option for the student. The conversation should aim to find a balance in what is best for the student.

In addition, the conversation should include considerations, such as the student’s eligibility to participate in a special education program or in an afterschool program. Also, educators and parents should discuss the likelihood of the student being late for school or for school activities due to the distance the student needs to travel.

“That way [having such conversation], the school can reduce the number of disputes,” she says. “Schools can make sure that they are making the best choice and the parents know that they are in the best place for their children’s education.”

3. Consider what transportation will look like.

Most likely, the school will need to provide transportation, says Duffield. She highlighted that Title I, Part A funds; McKinney-Vento funds; and CARES Act funds can be used to pay for transportation. However, the real point is what transportation is going to look like.

“Depending on the school district, it might mean rerouting a bus or it might be reimbursing the parent for gas,” she says. “Getting all of that set up is critical [for the student] to stay in the school of origin.”

4. Identify noneducational needs.

Although transportation is crucial, the school should go beyond providing transportation to make sure the student experiencing homelessness can be successful in the classroom.

“Identify if the student has noneducation basic needs that need to be met like food, clothing, health, and mental health,” she advises. “Some schools do [meet such needs] directly, and some schools do that through community partners. A student is set up for school success in part because those basic needs are being met.”

5. Ensure students participate in the same activities.

The school should do everything possible for the student’s routine to remain the same. One example is making sure students can participate in the same extracurricular activities that they were participating in before they became homeless.

“If they were involved in band, sports, debate or any other activity that it is part of a normal [school] experience, it’s really important that the participation on those activities can stay the same, too,” she says.

6. Take into consideration different age groups, other student subgroups.

Because school of origin also covers preschoolers, some considerations may be different when compared to older students. For example, schools should consider if the travel distance is too much for a young child to the preschool or if the preschool in question is really the student’s only option.

Similarly, Duffield says that serving homeless students who are also English learners may look different because of language barriers or the number of different languages spoken in the school district. However, the information about homelessness and parents’ rights under the law is going to be the same.  She says, “The information needs to be provided in a manner or a form that ELs can understand.”

Claude Bornel covers ELs and other Title I issues for TitleIAdmin, a DA sister publication.