Task force targets educational needs of homeless youngsters in Pa.

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A task force charged with studying the educational needs of homeless youth in Pennsylvania has issued a report that includes establishing a statewide advisory council as one of 13 recommendations on how to best serve homeless students.

The report also recommends the state provide some funding to supplement the $2.3 million it receives in federal funding for services to homeless children and for a more effective system of transportation to be developed to ensure homeless students can attend their schools of origin if they are forced to move.

The task force was created within the Pennsylvania Department of Education by state legislation in July 2012 and was made up of representatives from public and private sectors, including education, advocacy groups, religious organizations, housing and community services and state officials. It was chaired by the state secretaries of education and welfare.

Its report, titled "Meeting the Educational Needs of Pennsylvania's Homeless Children and Youth," was disseminated to the governor, state Legislature and school districts last Monday.

"The hope is that now that we have this in front of the schools there will be arenas for proper discussion of this," said Joe Lagana, founder of the Homeless Children's Education Network and a task force member. "This is now in the hands of every superintendent of schools in the state."

Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department, could not be reached for comment on the report.

Under federal law, a child is considered homeless if the family lacks a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence," including those who live doubled-up with friends and relatives, in hotels motels or campgrounds, in homeless shelters or without shelter.

The task force report said there are an estimated 19,912 children reported homeless and receiving services through Pennsylvania's Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program. Of that total, 18,231 were identified as being enrolled in school, a total that represents about 1 percent of the state's public school population.

The report divides homeless children into two groups -- those residing with their families and those identified as "unaccompanied youth," young people up to age 21 who do not reside with their families. Of the total, the report said 7,567 are classified as unaccompanied youth.

Nicole Anderson, a regional coordinator for the Pennsylvania Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program for Allegheny, Beaver, Bedford, Fayette, Fulton, Green, Somerset, Westmoreland and Washington counties, said one of the most significant recommendations was the one to create a transportation system.

Transportation back to a student's school of origin is a major obstacle to maintaining continuity in a homeless student's education, she said.

"We know that transportation is an issue, but we don't have a firm idea of how many kids a year need it," said Ms. Anderson, also a task force member.

The report said that 42 percent of the total are children age 6 or under, and that children who experience homelessness at a young age are more likely to demonstrate behavioral problems that include aggression, social withdraw, depression and anxiety.

Among the report's recommendations is the development of a statewide screening process for infants, toddlers and preschool children who are homeless to gain them access to early intervention and early childhood programs.

"One of the big things is reaching these families and getting those children connected to quality early learning services," Ms. Anderson said.

Homeless children may face multiple moves, including staying in shelters, doubling up with relatives or friends or sleeping in motels, cars or campgrounds, the report said. They are more likely to be placed in special education programs, to lag behind their peers and to be required to repeat a grade. They are less likely to graduate from high school in four years.

For children experiencing the instability caused by multiple moves, the report said "education can be the stabilizing aspect in many children's lives."

Another recommendation of the task force is to develop a statewide identification strategy to locate children experiencing homelessness and to make sure they are enrolled in supportive programs and services.

In the previous three years, the number of homeless children reported by schools in Pennsylvania was 18,621 in 2010-11, 18,231 in 2012-13 and 19,459 in 2012-13. Of those reported in 2012-13, 50 percent had living arrangements that involved doubling up with others, 31 percent lived in shelters, transitional housing or were awaiting foster care placement, 6 percent were staying in hotels; 2 percent were unknown and 1 percent were living without shelter.

But the report warns there are likely others not counted because they are not living in shelters or receiving services.

The racial breakdown of the 19,459 homeless children reported in 2012-13 was 70 percent white, 15 percent African-American, 9 percent Hispanic and 6 percent other.

As part of its study, the task force through the state Department of Education conducted a survey of parents of 643 homeless families. The surveys were distributed through schools and intermediate units. The results of that survey group showed 53 percent of the parents were between the ages of 18-34, 91 percent were female, 50 percent had never been married, 40 percent where white, while 38 percent were black and 50 percent were living doubled up with family or friends. Of those who responded, 43 percent had moved once in the past year and 27 percent moved two to four times in the past yeaar.

"I can only hope that this report is reviewed by the legislative body and that the talk continues and that some of the recommendations are implemented," Ms. Anderson said.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.

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