What happens to homeless and disconnected youth in a decentralized system of schools? This is a question that must be top of mind as charter school enrollment climbs and school systems become increasingly decentralized in cities across the country. (For an in-depth look at data on charter schools, see a new Bellwether resource, the Learning Landscape.) To some extent, education leaders have begun to grapple with the challenges of meeting all students’ needs when the district is no longer the only provider of education. Services like special education and policies like discipline — once in the sole purview of the district — have had to be reimagined to ensure equality and fairness across a decentralized system of schools.
In the same way, the systems and policies in place to support homeless and other disconnected youth must be reimagined to ensure students’ needs are identified and met.
The McKinney-Vento Act outlines the services homeless students are entitled to, including requiring each local education agency (LEA) to have a homeless liaison on staff, in charge of identifying homeless youth and liaising with outside agencies such as homeless shelters or mental health services. Though this model has its challenges, it does streamline districts’ advocacy efforts for homeless youth. In a traditional district, one person is in charge of coordinating with all necessary agencies to ensure that a homeless child’s needs are met. In cities where the majority of school-aged students attend the local school district, this means that those agencies are generally working with a single person to meet the needs of the majority of homeless students in the city.
But in cities with large numbers of charter schools, there could be dozens of liaisons — from numerous CMOs, independent charter schools, and the district — reaching out to the same limited number of service agencies in an attempt to secure services for their homeless students. The increased burden of coordination across many schools could lead to a decline in the quality of services.
It is imperative that education leaders and policymakers plan carefully and thoughtfully to ensure that homeless and disconnected youth are not lost in the shuffle. There is also real opportunity for new thinking around these issues: The autonomy and flexibility of the charter sector gives leaders a chance to fully reimagine the relationship between schools and service providers, cutting through silos and pioneering new ways for schools to identify homeless and other disconnected students and ensure there are supports are in place to help them do well.