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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Using our Heads and our Hearts to Educate Youth Experiencing Homelessness

In the daily struggles of working as an educator, it is easy to forget the hidden problems faced by our students—one of the most important being whether they have a nighttime residence that is fixed, regular, and adequate. In the 2014-15 school year, 1.26 million children across the United States in grades Pre-K through 12th grade did not have a residence that fit that simple definition. Over 95,000 of those were unaccompanied youth, meaning they do not share a residence with a parental guardian. Unfortunately these numbers are growing. There has been a 34% increase since 2009. Education law (McKinney Vento Act, Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act) provides the framework for supporting this population, but enacting the law is a complicated matter that involves coordination between institutions. 

On May 12, 2017, I had the pleasure of attending the New Hampshire Department of Education’s McKinney Vento Forum, where I learned about those staggering statistics. Dr. Lynda Thistle-Elliott, one of the strongest advocates for youth experiencing homelessness in New Hampshire, designed this forum to provide district and school personnel the opportunity to acquire current data on youth experiencing homelessness and offer guidance in understanding current law in support of their education. The event was hosted by Steve LeClair–another advocate of youth experiencing homelessness in the Seacoast region of New Hampshire. Here are a few of my key takeaways from this powerful professional learning experience.

Useful Resources on Homelessness and Education

The two featured speakers, Diane Nilan from Hear Us and Barbra Duffield from School House Connection, took very different approaches to deliver similar points on the widespread presence of youth experiencing homelessness and the struggle involved in ensuring those students receive their legal right to an education.

Diane Nilan was the heart of the forum. She presented short films designed to show youth experiencing homelessness in rural New England—specifically New Hampshire. She has produced several films from different regions that are worth a look. What is most captivating about her video work is her patience and focus—she allows her subjects, children and parents, to talk about their daily lives. Ms. Nilan places these conversations within the context of the towns, schools, and current living arrangements. Often participants discuss their struggle, but what is most affecting is seeing and feeling the struggle through the environment and emotions of the interviewee.

Barbara Duffield was the head of the forum. Few know the laws around educating homeless youth as well as Ms. Duffield and she presented a combination of demographic statistics, law, and guidance on how to fulfill the role of a homeless liaison on a district level. This role is complicated as some district personnel over-focus on process and delay student enrollment until certain questions can be answered (e.g., Do you have a birth certificate? Who is paying for transportation?). Ms. Duffield’s work is a staunch reminder of the importance and legal responsibility of the local homeless liaison. Working together Ms. Nilan and Ms. Duffield provided exceptional guidance on supporting these students with both our hearts and our heads.

If you are an educator looking to obtain professional development for yourself or provide some to your colleagues on the topic of homeless youth—you will find the combination of resources provided by Hear Us and School House Connection very valuable. 

No time for PD? Here are some reminders everyone could use:

If you are an educator with some questions about a student you might think is experiencing homelessness, here are some quick tips:

  • Find your district’s homeless liaison. Each district is required by law to have one and the liaison will know about your local resources.
  • Keep the student in school—there is never a reason that a student should not be allowed access to a school.
  • When conflicted, always go back to what is best for this child. Think to yourself, are your actions supporting their education or acting as a barrier to it?

Obtaining a high-quality education is one of the single most important factors associated with the long term well-being of students, so much so that education has long been a legal right for all American youth. Students experiencing homelessness confront several barriers that potentially limit their access to this right. It is our duty as educators to identify such barriers and provide the necessary support to those students in overcoming them.

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