SARATOGA COUNTY — As we roll out of summer into September, it’s back-to-school time for children and students. It’s a time of year that is equally exciting and stressful for students, parents, teachers, administrators and support staff, particularly with COVID-19 still on the rise around the country.
Over the past several months, the Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness has been highlighting different aspects and forms of homelessness that affect our community - but one of the rarely told stories of homelessness is that of homeless students. Back-to-school time is different for everyone, but it is particularly challenging for students who are experiencing homelessness. Most often, discussions around homelessness focus on adults, but what is often overlooked is discussing how homelessness of a family unit impacts children, their education, and social development.
According to the NYS Department of Education, Saratoga County school districts reported 474 registered K-12 students experiencing homelessness in the 2019-2020 school year. Across New York State (excluding NYC) that number swelled to 31,611. In 2019, CAPTAIN Community Human Services housed 92 youth in their shelter alone. The Saratoga-North Country Continuum of Care reported 21 unaccompanied youth in staying in an emergency shelter on a single night in January 2021. It is a significant issue and highlights the often forgotten and untold story of childhood homelessness.
The contributing factors leading to family/youth homelessness vary widely, and the resulting predicament can significantly impact a student’s education trajectory and social network. For example:
• A mother of three flees a domestic violence situation and is fearful for her children to continue to attend school in their home district as their abuser will know where to find them.
• A family of four, with two young elementary school-aged children, are evicted from their home and placed in a motel outside of their home district by the Department of Social Services. The supportive educational environment at school, where the teachers know them and their friends, is now gone.
• A high school senior is kicked out of their home and finds themselves at a runaway and homeless youth emergency shelter and struggles without the emotional support they need to graduate successfully.
National studies confirm that if a student remains connected, active, engaged, and present in their home school district, the rate of reaching graduation successfully is significantly increased. When there are disruptions to school attendance, periods of non-enrollment, multiple moves from one school district to another, and/or falling behind grade level academically, students are negatively impacted and the chances of graduating successfully - and on time - is severely reduced. According to the National Center for Homeless Education, when students were administered a survey measuring the stress of life events, researchers found that students reported changing schools being as stressful as the hospitalization or incarceration of a parent. Coupled with worries about where they will be sleeping at night or if they will have food to eat, this kind of dramatic transition is especially stressful for children experiencing homelessness. Nationally, 75% of homeless children perform below grade level in reading, 72% perform below grade level in spelling, and 54% perform below grade level in math.
Thankfully, in Saratoga County there are committed resources, programs, and dedicated school employees who are focused on the needs of homeless students to ensure they are successfully connected to the school system and have the resources they need to continue their education with their cohort. Federal legislation called the McKinney-Vento Act provides rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness.
Melanie Faby, the State McKinney-Vento Coordinator - who happens to reside in Saratoga County - explains the importance of this legislation, as it protects “the students’ rights to receive a ‘free, appropriate public education,’ by mandating that elementary and secondary school students without a ‘fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence’ are provided educational services comparable to those provided to their permanently housed peers. This provides stability that may be missed when a student is temporarily housed.”
Although the McKinney-Vento Act is a federal law, New York State laws further clarify some of the federal protections and add more. Some important, additional protections for New Yorkers are:
• Continued enrollment and transportation for students in their final year in a school building (such as their senior year in high school), even if they have found permanent housing in a different school district.
• Transportation responsibility is assigned to the designated district of attendance (or to the Local Department of Social Services (LDSS) under certain conditions) regardless of the student’s present location.
Ultimately, the goal of the legislation is to ensure that homeless youth are identified, enrolled in school, and have a full and equal opportunity to succeed academically. This can include academic support, transportation to and from their home district for the entirety of their homelessness episode or the end of the school year, access to school breakfast and lunch programs, after-school programming, and many other support services. The McKinney-Vento Act also requires all school districts around the country to have a Homeless Student Liaison to work with children, and their families, when they enroll in school as a homeless student or become homeless at any point during the school year.
In the big picture of addressing homelessness and creating successful outcomes, the community of service providers working together to serve the whole family is critical. Although the primary focus is helping families find, secure, and maintain permanent housing, careful attention must also be paid to the particular needs of children - ensuring that students maintain the vital link to school to help them successfully complete their education. The housing providers and services agencies which comprise the Saratoga County Alliance to End Homelessness, and several school district Homeless Student Liaisons contribute to this collaborative work.
For more information on resources for students experiencing homelessness or contact information for local Homeless Student Liaisons please visit www.nysteachs.org