Focus on homeless youths
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The state Department of Education's redefinition of homeless students' rights to public education and pending state legislation calling for a task force on the issue are significant developments in efforts to improve access to education for these children.
That was among the conclu+ at the Homeless Education Network's Summit II held Friday in the Rivers Club, Downtown, a meeting that had as speakers David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania; state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline; and state Reps. Chelsa Wagner, D-Beechview, a candidate for county controller; and Jake Wheatley, D- Hill District, along with representatives from school, housing and social service agencies. More than 300 people attended.
The redefinition is the result of a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania that put homeless children's rights into writing.
Legislation to create the task force is pending in both the state House and Senate.
Also noted for improving access for homeless students were cooperative programs between the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Allegheny County Department of Human Services and between the Clairton City School District and Sisters Place, a housing agency that provides transitional housing for homeless single parents and their children.
In addition to Pittsburgh, the county Department of Human Services provides help for homeless children in the Clairton, Highlands, Penn Hills, Woodland Hills, Wilkinsburg, North Hills, Steel Valley and Duquesne school districts.
Countywide, about 1,700 students were identified by schools and shelters as homeless between July 1, 2010, and Jan. 31, 2011, said Charlie LaVallee, Homeless Education Network director.
Mr. Wheatley spoke forcefully about the need for support services for homeless children in public schools.
"How can you ask them to perform academically when they are worried about where they are going to lay their heads, to find a safe place to stay, to have something to eat?" Mr. Wheatley asked.
Currently there are similar bills in both chambers of the state Legislature calling for the creation of a task force on homeless children's education. The bills call for the task force to be headed by the state secretary of education and for it to examine the educational needs of homeless children and develop a statewide proposal for serving them.
But Mr. Wheatley and other officials questioned if there will be a financial commitment at the state level to serving homeless children, given the proposed education budget presented by Gov. Tom Corbett, which includes substantial cuts in state aid to school districts, hitting poorer districts harder than wealthy ones.
Mr. Wheatley said state officials should decide: "Are we interested in providing the necessary resources to solving the problem?"
Ms. Wagner called the budget "the elephant in the room."
Mr. Corbett's wife, Susan, attended the conference, but did not make any public statements.
Several speakers referenced the legal settlement that put into writing homeless children's right to be enrolled immediately in any district in which their families have a "substantial connection." The settlement was the result of a federal lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania's Education Law Center and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty against the Carlynton School District in 2009. The district said it was not responsible for educating four children who were being served by the Interfaith Hospitality Network of the South Hills.
The school district argued that because families slept at various churches in the evenings they were not residents of the district. But the family spent its days at the network's center within the district, kept their belongings there and used it as a mailing address.
The state education department, which initially backed Carlynton's argument, later agreed in March 2010 to the settlement, and as a result issued a new basic education circular saying homeless children are entitled to attend any school district where a parent, a guardian or an adult caring for them spends the greatest percentage of time or has a "substantial connection."
The same applies to unaccompanied youth -- children living in foster care or in other arrangements independent of their families.
Mr. Hickton referred to the settlement as a "significant legal precedent."
In the collaborative agreements the Pittsburgh schools and Clairton district have with housing providers, the goal is to more quickly identify homeless students, get them enrolled in school, engage the parents in the school system and provide whatever supports are needed.
In Clairton, 65 students have been identified as homeless. In Pittsburgh, there are 615 homeless students.
In Clairton the school staff conducted an orientation session for parents and students at the townhouse complex where Sisters Place provides housing. As a result, on the first day of school "there were zero kids who were not properly enrolled," said Clairton guidance counselor Maureen McGarvey.
At the school district, an in-service training session was held for staff members "for them to understand what homelessness means and what rights students have," Ms. McGarvey said.
Last week's summit was the second held by the Homeless Education Network. The first was in November 2009.
The message from both summits can be expressed in the words of Mr. Wheatley:
"All children, regardless of economic resources or the decisions adults have made, should have the same opportunity to reach their untapped potential."
First Published April 14, 2011 5:37 am