Much has been written about how the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) solves nothing, continues the long federal retreat from education, and will leave vulnerable children behind. But what has been regularly overlooked is that ESSA is actually a win for the more than 2.5 million children and youth who experience homelessness each year.
Ensuring school stability for homeless children is critical, but there are very real barriers to doing so. Students often lack important paperwork, like medical records and proof of residency, making it difficult to enroll in school. Once enrolled, housing instability can mean high mobility and frequent absences, making it difficult for children and youth to access a consistent, quality education. A lack of transportation can make it difficult for students to get to school or for parents to participate in school activities for their children. Moreover, parents and youth often experience fear, shame, and embarrassment about their situations and avoid asking for help.
Thankfully, federal legislation (through Title I Part A and the McKinney-Vento Act)—and the amendments made to these programs under ESSA—has helped address many of these barriers. These programs have created structures to enable homeless students to enroll in school, remain in the same school, and access appropriate academic services like special education or gifted programming. The passage of ESSA demonstrates encouraging progress toward even greater protection and support for these students.
In particular, the amendments address the needs of two subgroups of homeless students: preschoolers and unaccompanied youths.
Nationally, one in 18 children under the age of six experiences homelessness at some point each year. Just eight percent of these children are served by preschool programs. The amendments made to ESSA help address this gap. The responsibilities of local homeless liaisons, who are in charge of identifying homeless students and ensuring they have access to educational services, have been expanded to include ensuring that young children are able to access Head Start, Early Head Start, early intervention programs, and other preschool programs provided by the district. ESSA also grants greater flexibility in what McKinney-Vento funds can be used for, enabling state and district leaders to use funds to identify homeless children and raise awareness about homeless children’s educational rights, including access to preschool.
Further, preschools are now considered in the definition of a student’s “school of origin,” meaning that if a student is enrolled in a preschool prior to experiencing homelessness, that child can remain in that school despite any number of homeless-related residential moves.
At the other end of the age spectrum, experts estimate that as many as 1.7 million youth under the age of 18 experience homelessness on their own in a given year. Though many of these youth return home within a week, more than one in five (approximately 380,000 youth) remain disconnected for extended periods of time. These unaccompanied youth often leave home due to severe family dysfunction, including abuse and neglect. They face additional barriers to education including a lack of awareness about their rights, fear of being returned to their families, and fear of being reported to the authorities. As a result, many of these youth either fail to disclose their situations to teachers and school staff, or drop out of school altogether. In fact, district and state-level data reveal that, in 2013-14, just 90,000 unaccompanied homeless youth were enrolled in schools nationwide.
The increased flexibility granted to states and districts over how to use McKinney-Vento funds now enables liaisons to use these funds to reach and engage homeless students not currently enrolled in school, in addition to continuing to support homeless students who are already enrolled.
In addition, designated feeder-pattern schools are now included in the definition of a student’s “school of origin,” providing increased continuity for students as they progress through grade levels. This is particularly important for unaccompanied youth who likely lack both consistent familial ties and stable housing. Enabling an unaccompanied eighth grader to continue into his middle school’s feeder-pattern high school can provide a small but important source of stability.
Finally, in addition to identifying and promptly enrolling unaccompanied youth in school, local homeless liaisons are now required to ensure that these youth know and understand their status and rights as an independent student. The implications of this status are particularly important as students pursue federal financial aid for post-secondary education.
Very real barriers exist to providing homeless students with a consistent, quality education. Identifying and serving preschool-aged homeless children and unaccompanied homeless youth can be even more challenging. However, the amendments included in ESSA represent encouraging steps forward.