Over the next week, staff at public schools across the 19 school districts in King County will welcome students, thousands of whom will be coming to school from somewhere other than a house. During the 2015-16 school year, 8,442 students in King County public schools were identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law that defines student homelessness and establishes crucial guidelines for schools to ensure that homeless students are able to participate fully in education. This federal law outlines students’ rights, such as immediate enrollment, transportation, access to educational supports, activities and school meals. Under this law, every school district in the United States must identify a homeless student liaison. In most cases, this is a part-time role.
Students experiencing homelessness live in every King County school district. More homeless students attend Seattle’s public schools (3,498 students) than any other district in the state. They make up 7 percent of the district’s student body (the state average is 4 percent). Highline, where 6 percent of students are homeless (1,195 students), is the fourth largest. Eleven percent of Tukwila’s 3,039 students experience homelessness. Nearly 40,000 students are homeless statewide.
As advocates for homeless children, youth and families, we see McKinney-Vento as an important framework and lever to improve school policies and address access for homeless students, which includes students who are “doubled-up,” couch surfing, staying in motels due to no alternative accommodations, in shelters, outside and in transitional housing. This definition helps schools support students most in need. However, the law doesn’t provide anything like full funding for school districts to implement its guidelines, which means inevitable tensions as underfunded school systems attempt to comply with their mandate and meet students’ needs. That is why good education and advocacy about how to implement McKinney-Vento are crucial to realizing its principles and ensuring success for homeless students.
The Coalition on Homelessness hosts an annual back-to-school workshop called “Helping Homeless Students: McKinney Vento 101.” We just published our updated “Guide to Understanding Education Rights for Homeless and Unstably Housed Students,” which outlines students’ rights and provides information for the McKinney-Vento liaisons in every King County school district (available online). These resources are intended for parents, teachers, students and social services staff.
Through our Project Cool for Back-to-School, 1,050 students in King County will walk into class this fall with brand-new backpacks filled with quality school supplies, USB drives, books and dental kits. We coordinate with local businesses, community groups and generous families to collect school supplies. This summer 150 volunteers sorted supplies and filled backpacks for children whose temporary homes are in church basement shelters, time-limited transitional housing or in cars, vans and tents.
We are grateful for this community of caring supporters. Helping real children start the school year well is heartwarming and fun, but with increasing numbers of students experiencing the trauma and upheaval of homelessness, we must go further. We need generous people and local businesses to learn why homelessness is increasing and speak up about the urgent need to fund stable, long-term housing and supports.
Here are three ways you can support the thousands of students experiencing homelessness in our community:
Support students and teachers with school and classroom supplies — but don’t stop there!
Pay attention to school policies and practices that may pose barriers to homeless students’ enrollment and full participation. For example, homeless students have the right to be enrolled in school without delay: They cannot be required to provide proof of homelessness, immunization records or to verify their address. They must also be allowed to participate in sports teams, performing arts activities, class trips and prom.
Speak up when you see potential barriers in school communications. Familiarize yourself with our resources and those at those at Schoolhouse Washington.
Join an advocacy organization like the Coalition to learn about the effects of homelessness on students and to push for education, policy changes and investments in housing. This winter the Coalition will host a special Homelessness Advocacy 101 workshop focused on children, youth and families. I invite you to join us. Learn more at homelessinfo.org.
Hillary Coleman is the community projects manager at the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.
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