The number of homeless students attending public school in Ohio has almost doubled in the past decade to more than 24,000.
The Dayton Public Schools handled almost 1,000 cases this year, while the school board in Springboro is considering an update of its policy on admission of homeless students.
Nationwide more than 1.2 million students are classified as homeless under laws prompted by the McKinney-Vento Act. The law, designed to protect kids’ rights to a free, stable public education, is also designed to stem the cycle of poverty.
Increasingly, more affluent districts are dealing with these issues when residents lose their homes or apartments, or children are forced out of their homes due to family problems.
“I really never had to deal with homeless children. It never was an issue,” said Ron Malone, a former principal in Springboro now serving on the local school board.
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“It is becoming more of an issue for schools everywhere as society becomes more transient,” said Malone who retired in 2013 after 35 years as a teacher and principal. “The economy certainly has a bearing on that.”
In Dayton, school officials say they see students who live in local homeless shelters being transported to class in districts like Centerville, Springboro, West Carrollton and Kettering.
“You’d be surprised how many will come to St. Vincent (de Paul Gateway Shelter) and travel back and forth,” said JoAnn Richardson, an outreach specialist in the Dayton Public Schools.
Under the law, school districts are required to set aside funding for the admission of homeless students.
The Ohio Department of Education also provides grants to districts for McKinney-Vento programs. Last year, school districts in Dayton, Hamilton, Fairborn, Springfield and Xenia served 1,591 students through the program.
In the past two years, Dayton Public Schools has received about $320,000 in McKinney-Vento grants, while serving more and more kids.
So far this year, the Dayton district has served 926 students attending public, charter or parochial schools as opposed to 806 last year, according to district data.
“We have more than we’ve ever had,” Richardson added.
The district helps provide for a range of needs, from free lunches to school supplies and transportation. It also advocates on behalf of the children or their families, when necessary, officials said.
The district also participates in quarterly meetings of an advisory panel, including officials from area shelters and social service providers who aid the homeless.
“We always need more funding,” Richardson said. “We’re making it work because we have to.”
The state also works with liaisons appointed in each district. Districts are required to train employees to recognize kids experiencing homelessness and to post notices about students’ rights under McKinney-Vento.
Qualifying students can enroll in the district where they are living after losing their home or be transported to where they were beforehand. Under state law, transportation costs are to be shared by the two districts involved.
“It also means stabilizing education to the best extent possible,” said Barbara Duffield of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.“If you don’t address the problems of children, education and homelessness, the problem will be perpetuated into adulthood.”
In Ohio, the number of homeless students has jumped from 14,000 in 2007-2008 to 24,000 in 2012-2013, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.
Foster children and older kids also qualify when they leave home, sometimes moving in with friends and relatives.
“They’re not necessarily living in a shelter,” said Evette Bethel of Coalition for Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. “You’re seeing a lot of doubling up.”
In some cases, more affordable housing is needed to prevent districts from being left to provide transportation to students whose families can no longer afford to live where they had been attending school, according to Eric Tars, senior lawyer for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
A new policy under consideration in Springboro - and recommended for adoption in more than 450 school districts in Ohio - reflects the latest changes in state and federal regulations, according to Patrick Corbett, executive director of NEOLA, legal consultant for 475 school districts in Ohio.
The proposed policy requires homeless students living within the district to be allowed to remain in their “school of origin” or enroll where they are now living without proof of residency, medical records, birth certificate or other documentation otherwise required. At no cost and without discrimination, the students are to be provided “comparable” services to other students, including meals, transportation and preschool, primary and secondary education and vocational training. It also requires a liaison to be appointed by the superintendent to assist the homeless children and their parents.
“It’s merely making explicit what has been standard in federal law,” Tars said, adding that new changes would probably be part of federal elementary and secondary education law being developed in Congress.
The same policy is likely to be considered for adoption - or is already in place - in more than 50 school districts in Montgomery, Greene, Butler, Warren, Clark and Miami counties that also contract with NEOLA.
Still contrary to the recommended policy, Springboro Board Member Jim Rigano said he wanted the board, rather than the superintendent, to decide whether to accept homeless students under the provisions of the law.
“How do we protect Springboro taxpayers and our students from the diluting of educational services?” he said.
Superintendent Todd Petrey said the board policy needs to comply with state and federal guidelines, while acknowledging the regulations “relax the documentation that is needed for admission.”
“They might not even reside in the district. We may need to bus them for an hour,” he added.
Wendy Ford, intervention specialist in the Springboro district, said the number of cases she handles as the district’s liaison varies from year to year. None were reported last year.
“When we do get them, it does require a lot of coordination,” Ford said. “You never know what is going to land at our door, what challenges they are going to have.”