Four homeless children are headed back to school.
These four children and their parents became homeless last April when the father lost his job and the family was evicted from its home. The Interfaith Hospitality Network of Southwestern Pennsylvania stepped in to help. The Network arranges for homeless children and families to be sheltered overnight in different churches each week.
In October 2009, the Carlynton School District, where the Network is located, tried to remove the four children from its schools, claiming the family did not actually live in the school district because they would sometimes sleep in shelters outside its boundaries. The Pennsylvania Department of Education agreed. But neither the State nor the school district could tell us where the children could be enrolled!
To protect these students' federally guaranteed right to a stable education, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and the Education Law Center - PA, filed suit under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal law that includes protection of homeless children's education rights.
We settled the case yesterday. As part of the agreement we reached, the Pennsylvania Department of Education issued a directive to school districts spelling out that children who are homeless, and who do not always sleep in the same district, can enroll in any school district with which the family has a "substantial connection," such as where they regularly receive services, conduct their daily living activities, or stay overnight on a recurring basis.
Bringing the state into compliance with federal law, the revised guidance also now requires the school district to inform families in writing of the basis of a denial of school enrollment or school selection decision; apprise families of their right to remain in their school of choice pending resolution of a dispute; and explain the procedures for challenging a school district's decision.
Because of their circumstances, homeless families often move from place to place as their basic need for shelter forces them to stay wherever they can find a bed for the night. Amidst the tumult of homelessness, school is a vital, stabilizing force for both the children and their parents. It also has long-term effects: Education is a key tool for breaking the cycle of poverty.
Yesterday's settlement ensures that four children will find some stability - that alone is a victory. But the impact is greater: Our settlement also changes policy for the entire state of Pennsylvania, better protecting the education rights of the more than 43,000 homeless children throughout the state, and helping to ensure they will be immediately enrolled in school wherever they are living.
By upholding this critically important federal law, our settlement brings the nation's 1.35 million (and counting) homeless children a little closer to what they so surely deserve: A fair chance for a brighter future. That's a step towards an even bigger victory.
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