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ESSA Expands Schools' Obligations to Homeless Students, New Guidance Says

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homeless students ESSA guidance

The number of homeless children attending U.S. schools has grown—roughly doubling between 2006-07 and 2013-14—and schools must work to adequately identify and support these students, the U.S. Department of Education said in revised guidance Wednesday.

The guidance clarifies the requirements of schools under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which was reauthorized when Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, at the end of 2015. It includes stronger requirements for identifying homeless students, which can be a challenge for schools, and professional development requirements for teachers.

Homeless students are more likely to be chronically absent and less likely to earn a high school diploma than their peers, U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said in a conference call with reporters.

"Working together, we can change these odds," King said.

As Education Week has previously reported, the new federal education law includes first-time requirements related to some vulnerable student populations. For example, states will have to break out the student achievement data and graduation rates of these homeless students, children in foster care, and children from military families just as they have done in the past by race and ethnicity.

The McKinney-Vento Act has always required students to help homeless students maintain their "school of origin," by providing additional transportation for students so that they are not required to constantly switch schools as their families move in and out of attendance boundaries. Under ESSA, the requirement is expanded to include district-run preschools and Head Start programs under the definition of "school of origin," the guidance says.

"The McKinney-Vento Act strongly emphasizes the importance of school stability for homeless children and youths," it says. "Changing schools multiple times significantly impedes a student's academic and social growth. The research on highly mobile students, including homeless students, indicates that a student can lose academic progress with each school change."

Under the new law, schools must create procedures to ensure transfer of both full and partial academic credit for homeless students, the guidance says.

"Additionally, the McKinney-Vento Act now has a strengthened emphasis on the unique needs of, and supports for, unaccompanied homeless youths, such as through the verification of independent student status for the purposes of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and improved coordination with other federally funded homeless assistance programs for which these youths may be eligible," the guidance says.

Among the other requirements outlined in the guidance:

  • Schools must identify preschool-aged homeless children and ensure that they have access to programs and services they are eligible for, including school-administered preschool programs and the Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities.
  • Schools must work to collaborate with other agencies to help meet the needs of homeless students. Those agencies include "public and private child welfare and social services agencies; law enforcement agencies; juvenile and family courts; agencies providing mental health services; domestic violence agencies; child-care providers; runaway and homeless youth centers; providers of services and programs funded under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act; and providers of emergency, transitional, and permanent housing, including public housing agencies, shelter operators, and operators of transitional housing facilities."
  • Schools must remove "enrollment barriers, including barriers related to missed application or enrollment deadlines, fines, or fees; records required for enrollment, including immunization or other required health records, proof of residency, or other documentation; or academic records, including documentation for credit transfer."

In recent student feedback sessions at the Education Department, homeless students shared stories about struggling to find places to store their books and supplies outside of school and finding it difficult to do routine tasks, like washing clothes and taking showers, King said.

Advocates for homeless students said the new guidance may help schools address the concerns of a sometimes "invisible" student population.

"It really takes a very dedicated, focused, specific, and intentional effort" to assist homeless students, said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Duffield praised ESSA's emphasis on "the full continuum of learning," from pre-k to college, for homeless students.

Photo: Getty Images

Further reading on homeless students and ESSA:

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