They are some of the nation’s most vulnerable children: homeless students. Getting an education can be life-changing for these students. But getting them to and from school isn’t always easy. For students whose residence can change daily – from a couch at their uncle’s home, a campground, a local homeless shelter, or even a train station – getting to and from school may not be at the top of their list of priorities.
Despite the challenges these situations can bring, school districts must find a way to help students receive an equitable education, per the McKinney-Vento Act (see the sidebar for more information on the McKinney-Vento Act). That starts with access to transportation.
According to data gathered by the National Center for Homeless Education, nearly 1.1 million students were identified as homeless during the 2020-2021 school year. That’s down from 1.27 million the previous school year. However, this may not paint an accurate picture of homeless students in America. COVID-19 operations impacted the identification of students defined as homeless. In some cases, it became more difficult to count the number of homeless students. That’s because some students simply disenrolled from school during the pandemic. Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, told Education Week that some students moved, while others lost touch during remote learning or otherwise became disconnected from their schools entirely during the pandemic.
Understanding the Importance of Providing Transportation
McKinney-Vento students are often dealing with stressors outside of the classroom that can make it difficult for them to succeed in school. But providing a daily educational setting that is consistent for these students, regardless of what is going on outside of school, can help them grow and develop.
“All students benefit from being fully included members of a school community where they are known by strength, story, and need,” Seattle School Board Vice President and District One Director Liza Rankin says.
That’s why it’s important to continue to transport them to and from the same school, even if their “home” setting changes to a location that is outside the zone for the school they started the school year at. The McKinney-Vento Act requires states to work with school districts to continue to provide transportation to the student’s school of origin, or the school the child attended when they were last permanently housed, or where they were last enrolled.
Since different schools move through curriculum at different rates, staying at one school gives these students the same access to high quality instruction and relationships with educators as their housed peers, Rankin explains. It allows the students to be known and supported by one building staff all school year.
Considering Alternative Transportation Options
This is where alternative transportation providers come in. Companies like EverDriven exist to provide pupil transportation in situations that can be challenging for school districts to find solutions for, especially in cases where students move outside the zone for their school of origin. EverDriven uses alternative modes of transportation like sedans and minivans.
During the previous school year, EverDriven transported 21,000 unique students across the 28 states it provides services in. Of those students, nearly half were considered McKinney-Vento students or students in foster care.
What makes transporting McKinney-Vento students different than traditional students, EverDriven CEO Mitch Bowling explains, is that their pickup and drop-off locations can change almost daily. In some cases, it can change in the middle of the school day. EverDriven has a team that is focused on efficient routing. Team members communicate daily with the school districts they serve. When the district is informed a student will need to be taken to a different location, the routing team works to find the best solution using its proprietary software. That may mean changing a driver’s route, or switching drivers entirely.
Companies like EverDriven don’t exist to replace school buses entirely, Bowling emphasizes. They are meant to work alongside school buses. For instance, if a single student needs to be transported outside of the district they currently have shelter in so they can get to their school of origin, a school bus can be an expensive way to provide that transportation. McKinney-Vento students and students with special needs can benefit from using these alternative modes of transportation.
Going to school is about more than just providing an education for these students, Bowling says. It gives them a sense of routine and allows them to socialize and interact with other students. In many cases, school can also be a child’s only meal for the day. Going to school can mean the difference between eating and not eating for a McKinney-Vento student.
Advice for School Districts Facing Transportation Challenges
School districts may face barriers to providing transportation to homeless students. Funding can lead to poor transportation offerings, Rankin says.
Washington state has one of the largest rates of homeless students, but it does not receive as much McKinney-Vento funding as some other states. That’s because the formula used to allocate funding is based on the percentage of students who qualify for Title I funding, which is given to states to be used for the students most in need of educational help. That doesn’t always necessarily equal the number of students experiencing homelessness. Even if districts don’t receive McKinney-Vento funding, they are still required to use other funding sources, like local education agency (LEA) transportation funds, to transport homeless students.
This comes back to determining whether it makes more sense financially to transport these students using school buses or alternative modes of transportation like the light-duty vehicles EverDriven uses for its services. Choosing not to use school buses allows districts to prevent additional wear-and-tear and save money on fuel.
It’s also worth comparing the cost of using school buses to other types of transportation, like public transportation, says Emily Teeter, state homeless coordinator for the Iowa Department of Education. The department encourages districts to explore alternative modes of transportation, as well as mileage reimbursement or gas assistance. When a student moves out of their school district of origin, or even across state lines, the department encourages districts to share transportation with the district where the student is currently seeking shelter.
The National Center for Homeless Education provides an array of resources for school districts to help them navigate providing for the needs of McKinney-Vento students. Among those is the Homeless Liaison Toolkit, which Iowa uses for its district liaisons. Liaisons act as point persons for homeless students, working alongside them to adequately communicate their needs. The Homeless Liaison Toolkit’s transportation chapter spells out requirements for school districts, as well as advice on considering the best mode of transportation for these students.
“These students deserve just as much access to school as any other student,” Bowling stresses.