McKinney-Vento Act

School districts struggle to help homeless kids as number grows statewide

Byline: 

School districts around the state are grappling with how to help growing populations of homeless students, even as budget cuts further slash their ability to meet their federal obligation to do so.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, school districts are required to identify and report homeless students and to guarantee those students transportation so they can stay at their original schools even if they have been forced to find emergency shelter outside the district.

Being homeless can affect how children learn, can lead to depression, and can be misdiagnosed as learning disabilities, labels that stick with a child for years.

“The main goal of identifying kids is so they can stay in their school of origin, so they have consistency with their peers, teachers and educational progress,” said Melinda Dyer, program supervisor for Education of Homeless Children and Youth for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. That means providing cabs, bus passes, or other means of transportation for kids, even if it means they are commuting up to an hour and a half a day to school.

It’s up to individual school districts to squeeze that transportation money from their own budgets. “There is no pot of money for homeless students,” said Dyer. “It’s a big burden for districts.”

In the 2008-09 school year (most recent year for which data available), schools reported 20,780 homeless students statewide, up from 8,141 in the 2003-04 school year.

Of the 10 districts with the highest numbers of homeless students in the state, seven reported increases from 2006-07 to 2008-09. Bellingham, for example, was up 84 percent, Shelton, 39 percent, and Wenatchee, 18 percent.