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Picayune School Board approves new policies for homeless students

Approved on first reading, the Picayune school board voted in the revised Homeless Student Handbook at Tuesday’s meeting.

Mary Williams, Director of Federal Programs for Picayune School District, met with the board to go over the revisions made, after federal regulations discontinued identifying foster children enrolled in schools as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, therefore requiring a separate handbook.

“Before this year foster children were considered homeless but that is no longer the case,” Williams explained. “That’s why there has to be a separate handbook this year, according to federal regulations there are new policies and procedures to follow with foster children, as well as with homeless children.”

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, reauthorized in January 2002 as Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act, is the primary piece of federal legislation dealing with the education of children and youth in homeless situations. Its key themes are school access and stability, support for educational success, and child-centered decision-making, according to the National Association for Education of Homeless Children and Youth website.

McKinney-Vento establishes the definition of homeless used by U.S. public schools, like Picayune, and the educational rights to which children and youth experiencing homelessness are entitled. For schools to be able to provide services to students in homeless situations, they have be able to identify these students, this act lists the qualifications that deem a child or youth “homeless.”

According to Williams, these qualifications, which includes children living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings, are listed in the new handbook. The full list of qualifications can also be found on posters in every school in the district, as well as the public library, the hospital, laundry mats and hotels in town.

Williams went on to explain to the board that if a child meets any of the qualification for being homeless or if their parents check yes to any identifying questions during enrollment, then she and her team of counselors and social workers must go out and investigate the situation. If the child does in fact meet the appropriate qualifications than he/she must be listed as homeless and reported to the state.

“You have some children whose parents marked ‘yes they are homeless’ because they did not understand the question and that's why we have to go verify the information,” Williams said. “We have to go out to where they are living and we do a survey with them to find out if they are living in a home with someone else by choice or if it's because they’ve lost a job or if it’s a temporary situation.”

Each individual situation must be reviewed carefully to ensure the students are classified properly. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, students are identified as homeless if they lack a fixed or “adequate” nighttime residence. They may also be living in hotels or motels, shelters or unsheltered situations, like cars, beaches or abandoned buildings, or in a lot of cases students may be temporarily “doubled up” with other families or sharing housing.

Williams explained that the changes in the economy as well as natural disasters in the area, play a key role in the homeless student enrollment in the school district and how those students are identified.

“You have to really look at the definition and the qualifications that make each individual student homeless to understand, because homeless doesn’t mean they aren’t in a building, a home or a house, they could just be doubled up,” Williams explained. “I listened to a webinar the other day about how to redefine homeless and what doubled up is, because a lot of families are doubling up to save money and if they are doubling up by choice to save money that’s not considered homeless. There’s a difference between living with someone because you choose to or living with them because you’ve been displaced from a hurricane or loss of job.”

Some living situations, where families double up, may be a temporary solution to a problem and those children are deemed homeless for the time being, but after three years it’s no longer considered temporary or homeless and the status is removed, Williams said.

In Mississippi, 93 percent of the students found to be homeless were doubling up, and just 1 percent were unsheltered altogether. While living with friends or extended family can be safer for children than living without shelter, experts say the arrangement also makes it more difficult to detect homelessness. Students who are unwilling to be singled out often create a barrier to receiving outreach, by keeping their status to themselves.

When asked by the board if Williams has experienced any reluctance from students or parents when registering as homeless, Williams said yes, and mostly with older students.

“The older they get, the fewer we have,” Williams said. “Junior high and high school age, they do not want to claim to be homeless. You have it a lot more at the elementary level.”

Districts are now requiring an increase in outreach efforts to identify homeless students, provide “comprehensive education” by coordinating with social service agencies, give “specialized instructional support” to qualifying pupils, and keep track, separately, of graduation rates and other data on homeless kids.

Reforming services for homeless students is particularly urgent in Mississippi, where outcomes for these students have in recent years been bleaker than almost anywhere else in the country. A 2014 report from the American Institutes for Research and the National Center on Family Homelessness ranked Mississippi 49th out of the 50 states in identifying and serving homeless children.

The problem with identifying and serving homeless children in the Picayune area, or any area across the state, is that most people aren’t aware there is a homeless population with in their community because they can be so discrete.

“When I saw this, I thought surely we don’t have any homeless children in Picayune,” Board Member Frank Feely said.

However, there are children enrolled in the Picayune School District who have met the requirements and have been identified as homeless by Williams and her coworkers; 52 to be exact. And according to Williams the number could continue to rise since her department is they still calculating the information from this year’s enrollment.

Without proper resources or support those students could fall behind. Williams explained that the new handbook is a tool to identify and combat the homeless problem in Picayune schools, and give these students the help they need.

To review the list of qualification or read more on the McKinney-Vento act click here.


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