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Students: A Hidden Homeless Population

By: Beth Conaway, Advisory Board Member, A Better Delaware

We have all seen pictures of homeless encampments, under bridges or on the streets in an urban downtown. But unfortunately, there are many homeless individuals that are not so evident to the public. One group of such individuals is students in our public schools.

These children are often displaced from stable housing by domestic violence, poverty or uninhabitable living situations, which could be the result of neglect by a landlord, but also often results from crime or other events that cause damage to their home.

During the 2021-2022 school year, the Delaware Department of Education identified 3,434 homeless students in Delaware. These students face a range of challenges that can impede their education and overall well-being. The Department of Education has worked to address those challenges.  The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is a federal law that provides certain protections and support for homeless students. All public schools in Delaware must adhere to the provisions found in the Act.

The Delaware Department of Education defines homelessness as a lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. This includes children who make a temporary move to live with others as well as children who live in motels, hotels, campgrounds, transitional shelters, or public or private places that are not designed for, or ordinarily used, as a regular sleeping accommodation.

Every school district has one or more staff that is designated as a school liaison with these homeless students. The liaison is responsible to inform parents or guardians of educational and related opportunities that are available to their children.  This information includes services provided under the McKinney-Vento Act.

One of the main tenants of the Act is the term “school of origin”. Under the McKinney- Vento Act, a child or the parent or guardian has the right to request to remain in the same school they attended before they were displaced. This can result in long rides to and from schools and costly transportation expenses. For example, a student attending a school in Dover may become homeless and find temporary housing in Georgetown. When this occurs, the McKinney-Vento act requires a “Best Interest Meeting”, between school’s liaison, school personnel and the parents or guardians of the student.  Those guardians may very well be the state’s social workers if the student is at risk of harm and the state takes custody.  The meeting must be held before a student is removed from their current school and before any school placement decisions are made.  Its purpose is to ensure continuity in the child’s education.  Schools can provide transportation services such as picking up students at their homes in vans, providing bus passes or vouchers, and even offering flexible school start times to accommodate travel arrangements. This transportation is paid for by the original school district. In some cases, enrollment disputes occur between the families and the schools. These disputes are mediated in accordance with the Enrollment Disputes section of the McKinney-Vento Act.

Students who are classified as homeless are also entitled to additional services, such as immunizations, and many schools also have established food pantries, clothing closets, and hygiene product distribution programs.

Even with these supports, homelessness often disrupts academic progress and social connections.  According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, 75% of homeless elementary school students in Delaware perform below grade level in math and reading, and 85% of high school students do. They often also face health and safety risks associated with living in unstable or unsafe environments. In addition, stigma and social isolation may result due to their housing situation.

As a result, providing targeted responses and accommodations can help ensure that homeless students have the support they need to succeed academically and thrive despite their housing instability.  The cost for these supports is high and must be recognized by state and local officials to ensure that the necessary funds are present to support the students, the families, and the schools.

Beth Conaway is a former teacher, who served for eight years as Principal of the Morris Early Childhood Center and then as Principal of Milton Elementary School for five years. She retired after 31 years in the Delaware public school system. Currently she teaches graduate courses at the University of the Cumberlands and volunteers in the Indian River School District.