A bold start to educating Pennsylvania’s Homeless Children

Posted by By at 4 February, at 10 : 20 AM Print

A study to determine the educational needs of homeless children is the aim of a proposal that senators Wayne D. Fontana, D-42, John Pippy, R-37, and others recently have introduced.

The senators are calling for the formation of a statewide task force to conduct a year-long study on the educational needs of homeless children in Pennsylvania.

The proposed task force and study would “reinforce and strengthen” the federal McKinney-Vento Act that mandates the right of homeless children to public education at the school which is in the best interest of the child, Bill Wolfe told RockTheCapital. He’s executive director of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund in Allegheny County.

While McKinney-Vento is a federal law, it requires each state to set up the proper process for providing for the education of homeless children and youth, Wolfe said. The McKinney-Vento Act of 1987 was reauthorized in 2001 and is being considered for reauthorization this year.

But, often parents don’t know about their children’s educational rights, Wolfe said. Sometimes they are dealing with difficult economic or emotional situations, so they can’t be the advocates their children need. Sometimes school districts don’t agree with parents’ choices.

In 2010, the Education Law Center based in Philadelphia, filed suits on behalf of two children – one in western Pennsylvania and one in Central Pennsylvania – who were denied their educational rights when they became homeless. The suits were resolved favorably for both children. “The task force can be the voice of homeless children throughout the state,” Wolfe told RocktheCapital.

Statewide, there are an estimated 12,000 children who are homeless. In Allegheny County, there are 875 children reported as being homeless on any given day, Wolfe said. But, the problem is that experts say that for every one child identified, two are not.

Instead of staying in homeless shelters, these children might be “doubled up” with other family members or friends, or living in cheap motels, even cars or abandoned buildings, according to Wolfe.

A goal of the proposed task force is to identify such children and their parents, and determine ways of reaching out to them, Wolfe said.

A key to this is to get the homeless shelter systems and the schools communicating, Wolfe told RocktheCapital. “It’s not an expensive thing, it’s not brain surgery. It’s hard work to get it done. It’s a matter of getting the word out to the community.”

A state-wide task force would help to get everyone “on the same page,” Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center, Philadelphia, told RocktheCapital. She pointed out that there are some terrific models of schools working with children experiencing homelessness, but that needs to happen on a statewide basis.“We need to identify the children’s needs and how to address them,” she said.

If this proposal is adopted, it would require the task force to survey children and parents who are homeless to determine the length of homelessness, the number of homeless episodes experienced, the living situations, average number of school changes, and access to remedial services and after-school programs. The task force would also look at the difficulties serving homeless children as well as successful strategies for informing parents of services available to them and of serving children who are in temporary living arrangements. It would also include best practices, incorporating those used in other states to educate children who are homeless.

The task force would be expected to present these and related findings in a report with recommendations to the governor and other state officials, agencies that work with the homeless population, as well as to the state’s school districts a year after the first task force meeting.

“Identifying and counting are important,” Wolfe said. In other states, the number of homeless children is rising, while in Pennsylvania the number is flattening out, not showing the true picture. “We believe they’re out there. Pennsylvania is not immune to the economic crisis.” He noted, for example, that in Allegheny County, the number of homeless children increased 39 percent from 2009 to 2010, as a result of the economic crisis.

He pointed out that the collection of such data is not the same across the state, and so fails to show that trend. Failing to identify homeless children can result in the loss of some of the funding allocated through the McKinney-Vento Act, Wolfe said.

Members of the proposed task force would include the secretary of education and of public welfare, or a designee from the office of Children, Youth and Families, 15 members to be appointed by the secretary of education, including five representatives of local agencies who assist those who are homeless.

These five would represent geographical regions of the state. The task force would also include four representatives from public schools including a charter school, representing rural suburban, and urban areas, as well as three people representing intermediate units, and three from social service organizations.

Rep. Chelsa Wagner, (D-22), is planning to introduce a companion proposal in the House as early as next week. “Children now make up the largest segment of the homeless population in Allegheny County,” Rep. Wagner said in a memorandum. “Our schools sometimes serve as the only safe haven and stable environment for these children.”

(To read more of why Senator Fontana is pushing so hard for the task force, click on Rock The Capital.)

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