Invisible students: Pennsylvania's homeless youth deserve an education, too

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Earlier this year, at a summit on the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, David J. Hickton, told 325 community representatives, "Homeless youth and children are faced with unique barriers to obtaining an education. They are also the most educationally at-risk student population. Children experiencing homelessness are more likely to drop out than graduate and more likely to become homeless and unemployed as adults."

The National Center for Homeless Education, which serves as a resource center for the U.S. Department of Education, has reported a substantial increase in the number of children and youth experiencing homelessness in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

In the 2009-10 school year, there were more than 930,000 homeless children and youth enrolled in school in the United States. From the 2007-08 school year to the 2009-10 school year, Pennsylvania had a 55 percent increase for a total of more than 18,000 children and youth experiencing homelessness. In the region of Allegheny, Beaver, Bedford, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Somerset, Washington and Westmoreland counties, there were approximately 2,200 children and youth enrolled in school who were homeless.

Homelessness is a great challenge to school stability and academic success. For example, according to NCHE, within a year 41 percent of homeless children will attend two different schools and 28 percent of homeless children will attend three or more schools in one year. With each change in schools, a student is set back academically by an average of four to six months.

The purpose of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act is to "ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youth." At the heart of the McKinney-Vento Act is ensuring that children and youth experiencing homelessness are enrolled, attending and succeeding in school.

There is significant progress that needs to be made regarding the academic success of homeless children and youth in Pennsylvania. Only 51 percent of students in grades 3-8 and 38 percent of high school students scored at or above proficient in the standardized reading assessment test. Additionally, only 56 percent of students in grades 3-8 and 28 percent of high school students scored at, or above proficient in the math assessment test. If these students do not succeed academically, the consequences and costs for those who drop out of school are enormous for both the students and for society.

Mr. Hickton also said, "The homeless children crisis is a civil rights issue. Homeless children deserve equal protection and equal opportunity under the law. . . . The protection of civil rights is the unfinished business of America."

Children and youth experiencing homelessness are people of worth and dignity. They deserve every opportunity to enroll, attend and succeed in school. It is the right thing to do to support them -- especially in light of the great challenges they face. But let us never forget that their access, participation and success in school is also their civil right.

Nicole Anderson is regional coordinator of the Homeless Children's Initiative-Allegheny Intermediate Unit and Charles P. LaVallee is director of the Homeless Children's Education Fund.


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