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Helping homeless students tackle barriers to academic success

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Charlotte Pope

It’s not always easy for a homeless student to push past the stigma and focus on academics.

To increase understanding about the barriers to educational success for homeless students, Temple University’s School of Social Work and the Children’s Work Group held the Students Without a Home summit on Friday, where experts discussed best practices for improving educational outcomes among homeless students.

The summit featured speakers from the Mayor’s Office of Education, the School Reform Commission, the Education Law Center, and several Philadelphia agencies that serve at-risk youth.

“We are doing this to raise awareness that there are thousands of homeless kids out there who are not receiving any services,” said Joe Willard, one of the summit’s organizers and vice president of policy for the People’s Emergency Center (PEC).

“They need to be connected to educational supports so that they can stay on track for their academic achievement,” he said.

Over one million homeless students are enrolled in U.S. schools, a 20 percent increase from last year, according to the Children’s Work Group. In Philadelphia, there are more than 9,000 students without a home.

“What can we do to make our schools comfortable places?" Rachel Falkove, head of the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Northeast/West Philadelphia, asked the attendees.

Part of the process begins with making sure homeless students are informed of their legal rights. Summit attendees talked about the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, the primary piece of federal legislation that deals with the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness in U.S. public schools.

The law ensures students school stability, immediate enrollment, liaisons in every district, prohibition against discrimination, and equal access to a free, appropriate public education. It also provides federal funding to states to support district programs that serve homeless students.

In Philadelphia, 4,689 students have been identified as being eligible for aid under the McKinney-Vento Act, according to PEC.

For Willard, the summit served as a brainstorming session to ignite the minds of activists.

“I ultimately hope to have a strategy to reach out to the thousands of homeless teenagers that are out there and connect them to school supports.”

Oct. 14-20 marks the second annual Homeless Children’s Awareness Week. Led by the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, the goal is to alert families and youth experiencing homelessness to their rights while also encouraging others to get involved in the effort to make a difference. For a list of this week’s events and information about how you can help, visit www.homelessfund.org.

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