At our last Homes for Families’ Community Meeting we came together to focus on back-to-school issues. This included a comprehensive presentation from Sarah Slautterback from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on school based supports for homeless students and their families along with the rights and strengths of students experiencing homelessness.
All students who are experiencing homelessness and attending a public school in Massachusetts have certain rights. Homelessness is defined more broadly by DESE as compared to the definition used by the Department of Housing and Community Development when determining Emergency Shelter eligibility. DESE utilizes the definition under the federal McKinney Vento law, which defines anyone who lacks fixed, regular, and adequate housing as homeless including those that are doubling up due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason.
- The right to school selection and to remain in the student’s school of origin: Towards this end, the school must provide transportation to the school of origin (up to an hour away). Students have the right to this transportation through the end of the year during which they are housed, even if this means multiple years of transporting to their school of origin. If a parent does not agree with a school district’s assessment on where the student should attend school, the parent can appeal. Generally the parent’s decision is the final decision unless the Commissioner of DESE decides otherwise. No attorney is needed, but parents can certainly seek an attorney if they wish.
- The right to immediate enrollment: If a student does want to enroll in a new school system, the only thing the school can require is emergency contact information. This emergency contact information cannot be shared without a parent’s consent. HFF tip: Ensure this sharing of information does not happen for a student you are working with, as typically this is published as directory information.
- The right to participate in all activities and programs, including summer school: Such as alternative education, ESL, Title I, field trips, and gifted and talented programs.
- Categorical eligibility for free meals being served: A few districts are doing dinner in addition to breakfast and lunch. Some are also packing backpacks on Friday afternoons with food for the weekend. Students experiencing homelessness have automatic access to all meals being served or food being provided.
- Unaccompanied homeless youth can enroll with or without a guardian, have independent status for financial aid, and can apply to colleges and access career and college counseling.
- Schools supplies including uniforms and basic school supplies must be provided by the school.
- Undocumented students have all the rights of other homeless students; they cannot be asked for documentation information. All undocumented youth have the right to access any public education. If homeless, they can share that they are homeless and will be provided with the same access as any other homeless student. There has to be a court order or consent of a parent to release personal records that may include notes on the students’ immigration status.
The Role of the Homeless Education Liaisons
Every school district in Massachusetts (and across the country) has at least one homeless education liaison. Some larger districts have liaisons in every building. DESE encourages at least a contact person in each school building of every district.
Homeless Education Liaisons must:
- Be able to identify homeless students in their school/district;
- Make sure homeless families know what their rights are;
- Make sure that students are accessing programs and that referrals to community resources are being made for mental health, dental, and medical services, etc. DESE strongly encourages liaisons to stay abreast of what is being offered within the community;
- Engage families, including helping to inform parents about how to get involved in their children’s school;
- Facilitate disputes around enrollment (and if a liaison has challenges with this, someone from the DESE compliance office will step in and facilitate the process with superintendents); and
- Train staff in districts: Sarah has always offered to go in and offer trainings, but homeless education liaisons should also be able to do this on their own now.
For more information, check out this flyer. Please contact DESE at: 731-338-3700 with questions and for technical assistance for a family or student experiencing homelessness.
Trauma and Student Resiliency
We also discussed how trauma intersects with the challenges students and families face and how to build on strengths. Our group named domestic violence, walking to school while navigating gang territory, bullying, and periods of absenteeism as only a few examples of the added layers of potential trauma faced by students experiencing homelessness. The role of support systems, spirituality, and becoming involved in after school activities, especially those that can build on students’ interests and talents like art, sports, and theater, can be tools for enabling students and their parents to find community supports.
Join us in putting these important resources and supports in Massachusetts to work by ensuring that you or families you work with know who the liaisons in schools near you are and that you are in dialogue with liaisons regarding the needs of students and families in your community. Let’s ensure that the rights of all students experiencing homelessness are fulfilled and all supports maximized, promoting young people’s and families’ innate strengths and resiliency.
Liz Peck, Director of Operations and Member Engagement