invisible homeless kids

Hard to imagine that in this country way over 3 MILLION kids are without homes. H-O-M-E-L-E-S-S Kids. I don't get it. Are we willing to discard these kids? Not me. So this blog will relentlessly focus on this issue, hoping to light a spark to fuel a compassion epidemic. Chime in, argue, but do something....

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back to School with Red Flags

Few people would be able to answer the question: Where were you or what were you doing 15 years ago?

Back in `93 I was up to my ears in a legal conflict involving a family staying at our shelter and a nearby affluent suburban school district.

The short version of a long, fascinating story is that the school district didn't want the family to return since they moved out of district because of homelessness. The mom, very understandably, wanted her kids to have the stability of the school setting where her kids had spent the past few years.
The family lost the Intense court battle, but good eventually evolved....

We created and lobbied for the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, a.k.a. Charlie's Bill, passed in 1994, paving the way for landmark legislation that now helps homeless kids across the country by removing common barriers and providing essential assistance so homeless kids can grow up as productive adults.

Now, if you knew Aurora, IL was the birthplace of this amazing legislation, you might be silly enough to think that they would be on the forefront of compliance with it--you know, kind of a local pride. Nah!

In a news story last week, the Beacon News reporter described a case where a student was being kept out of school by the school district because of concerns about residency.

Now, I'll be the first to issue a disclaimer--all I know about the story is what I read...well, and also what I have repeatedly come across in years advocating for homeless kids to be enrolled in school. So, I'm going to dissect this story (Red--or for some reason green-- copy are excerpts from the Beacon News) like I was a 12-year-old classmate of Nathan. Maybe someone will be able to follow my logic.

Nathan's residency on the West Side is in question by district officials, prohibiting him from enrolling for the year. What's more, mom Renee Cavada has been hit with a $7,000 tuition bill for his sixth-grade year at Jefferson Middle School.
12-year-old: Could it be the money? Schools are always complaining about money, though it seems a lot of school administrators drive nice cars and wear expensive clothes....
Cavada and her two children have been living with her parents at their home on May Street on the West Side since last summer. Amid marital problems, Cavada moved with the children out of the East Side home she and her husband had shared. When school began last year, Cavada enrolled Nathan at West Aurora's Jefferson Middle with no problem.
(OK, this is where thinking like a 12-year-old can be handy...pointing out the obvious: LIVING WITH HER PARENTS AT THEIR HOME SINCE LAST SUMMER. AMID MARITAL PROBLEMS...moved with the children...)

12-year-old: What is it like to live with your grandparents? I imagine things were pretty tense at your house before you and your mom moved into their house. Your parents were arguing all the time, and you said you never had any money because your family was going through hard times. And you never could have friends come over because it was too crowded... (clue--HARDSHIP).

Now, the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance law, which governs all public schools, talks about loss of housing due to hardship as being a condition of homelessness.

Any parent who has gone through marital problems would probably agree that this is a time of hardship. When things deteriorate--and we don't know if any physical, sexual, or emotional abuse was involved--but when things get so bad the parent moves out of their home and into the parent's home, I'd suspect that it's not just because Mom makes good lasagna.

Think of the last time you lived, or stayed, with a family member. Even vacations can count. Did there come a time when it ceased to be fun any more? Overcrowding, too many people for too few bathrooms? People eating your specially purchased food? TV up too loud? Kids getting on the adults' nerves? Unless your parents are some kind of special people and their house is large enough for 2 families to live together without crossing into each others' space, then it is not fun to double-up with family (or friends).

It gets worse...
...her home on the East Side has gone into foreclosure and is up for auction in September. Moving back to East Aurora schools, Cavada said, is not an option.

FORECLOSURE...does that perhaps qualify as hardship? Think about it...

The clue, in case you need one, is in the following:

While West officials said they could not comment on situations with individual students, they did confirm that the district has been more aggressive recently in identifying non-resident students.

When enrollment information is sent out in the spring, any mail that comes back returned throws up a red flag, prompting a residency check, said Greg Scalia, the principal at Jewel Middle School and the district's residency liaison.

Residents must show two bills dated within 60 days of each other with a current home address. If West still suspects a student is living outside district boundaries, officials may perform home visits or use other investigative tactics.

Returned mail = red flag = residency check. Now, if the residency check includes the checker being aware that a family may not want to be forthcoming about marital problems, financial crises, or other personal business with a residency checker, then I'd say the district was on the right track. And I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt. But...I've seen too many cases where the family is guilty until proven that time the residency hearing has been held and it's too late.

Another red flag that indicates the district may be afoul of the law is the guardianship requirements.
Scalia said, students living with other family members must either also be living with their legal guardian or have the other family member take legal guardianship.
If a family (or unaccompanied youth) becomes homeless--loses their housing due to hardship--they do not need to appoint a legal guardian for purposes of school enrollment.

Here's the segment from 100 Frequently Asked Questions about McKinney-Vento that talks about guardianship requirements:

54. Can a school require a caregiver to get legal guardianship to enroll a student in school? A: No. The McKinney-Vento Act requires states to address the problem of guardianship issues in school enrollment and requires school districts to enroll youth in school immediately, even if they lack typically required enrollment documents. 42 U.S.C. §§11432(g)(3)(C), (g)(1)(H)(iv), (g)(1)(F)(ii). The decision to seek legal guardianship is a serious decision that significantly affects the legal rights of the parent and caregiver well beyond the school arena. While that step will be appropriate in some cases, it will not be in others.

I am surmising that some of the other families in the story might also qualify to attend District 129's schools because of homelessness.

Seems to me that this is a classic example of shooting one's self in the foot. A community fighting gang problems probably would be well-advised to make sure kids are getting an education. Perhaps someone--the Mayor, the IL State Board of Education, or SOMEONE should be looking into this situation before the school district ends up sued. That would cost a whole lot more than the price of tuition....

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

how many low income families have had trouble with Greg Scalia