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Report: Homeless children struggle to stay in school

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Posted at 5:06 PM, Feb 20, 2015
and last updated 2015-02-20 22:13:56-05

The nation’s public school systems are being affected by the number of homeless children, which a report says is on the rise.

The report ranked states on how well they did at keeping children in school and their efforts to do better.

The number of homeless children rose by 56 percent, from 1.6 million in 2010, to 2.5 million 2014. The numbers are from the U.S. Department of Education.

“American’s Youngest Outcasts,” published in November by National Center on Family Homelessness, a division of the American Institutes for Research, reported the data. The report was discussed Tuesday by the Congressional Homelessness Caucus.

The report says that homeless children are absent from school more often than other children, often repeat grades or drop out entirely.

John McGah, senior associate at the National Center of Family Homelessness, said the numbers are troubling.

“These numbers are historically high,” McGah said. “Some of the issue is our school systems. Students need to continue their education without the threat of leaving school. The uninterrupted education of homeless children is an effective response.”

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless students have a right to enroll in public schools.

Denise Ross, homeless liaison for the Prince George’s County Public School District in Maryland, said that her school system just outside Washington has “experienced an alarming growth.”

The county has counted 1,900 homeless students. But the number could be higher.

“We’ve experienced a 33 percent growth since 2008,” Ross said. “That is only in our district. The problem is national.”

The McKinney-Vento law provides grants to school districts to work with homeless children.

Prince George’s County received $900,485, which is used to help teachers run after-school programs and distribute gift certificates so children can buy school uniforms and other clothing. A small portion goes to teacher training.

Each state was ranked according the number of shelters and supportive housing – which provides housing and social services – the percentage of home foreclosures, the percentage of children living in poverty and how many households were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Maryland ranked No.11. Minnesota ranked at the top, followed by Nebraska, Massachusetts, Iowa and New Jersey. The bottom three were California, Mississippi and Alabama, which ranked the worst at No. 50.

Malissa Valdes-Hubert, public information manager, for the Alabama Department of Education, said in an email that the state “has worked hard to assist schools to do a better job of finding and enrolling homeless children and youth.”

California and Mississippi did not respond to a request for interviews.

The two top-rated states have similar programs.

Roberto Reyes, homeless and neglected and delinquent programs state coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Education, said he trains a homeless liaison for each school district, about 600.

Reyes said that one of the innovative ways that the state helps its students is by offering transportation.

“We set aside state funding for that,” Reyes said. “Whether it means by bus or by taxi, we coordinate with the shelters and parents to get the child to school. In many cases, it’s to the school they were attending before becoming homeless.”

The $639,320 in federal funding provides students with school supplies, clothing and books. The homeless child population of Minnesota is about 9,300.

Minnesota uses a questionnaire to determine if students are homeless. It is distributed to all students and asks for proof of residency and a signature from a parent or guardian. Minnesota also considers students placed in temporary foster situations as homeless, entitling them to state assistance.

Reach Reporter Jose Soto at jose.soto@scripps.com or at 202-408-1494. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.