What You Need to Know About Transporting Homeless Students

Caroline Casey
Posted on June 1, 2004

The challenge of homelessness confronts cities, counties and school districts across America, not just in major metropolitan areas.

When the McKinney-Vento Act was reauthorized in 2001 as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, homeless kids were guaranteed the right to be educated at their school of origin.

That has posed serious compliance questions for school districts in urban, suburban and rural areas alike. While the stability is good for students, it also imposes legal, logistical and budgetary burdens on transportation providers trying to abide by the federal mandate.

Defining ‘homeless’
According to Peggy Burns, staff counsel for the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colo., the first challenge is properly identifying who your homeless students are. As defined in McKinney-Vento, homeless children are “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”

This designation includes visibly homeless children living in shelters and public spaces such as parks, children whose families are living in motels or with relatives, and teenagers living on their own. While some students are easily classified as homeless, others may have a more uncertain status.

Among the thorniest situations are those in which children have moved in with extended family. “What about a child whose family goes to live with Grandma in April of a particular school year and is still living there at the beginning of the next school year?” says Burns. “That’s why it comes back to fixed, regular and adequate. If you’re talking about Johnny having his own room at Grandma’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean the child is homeless. The child is now in fixed, regular and adequate housing.”

Staying abreast of the changing eligibility of students should be a major priority for transportation departments. Burns recommends having the district’s homeless liaison redetermine status at the beginning of every school year.

John Matthews, assistant director of transportation for Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., says eligibility can be a moving target. “When does eligibility end, for example?” he says. “If the family has been placed in a new setting, does that now become their place of residence and eliminate them from eligibility? On and on it goes.”

Another difficulty in determining which students are covered by McKinney-Vento is the conflict between the definitions of homelessness in state versus federal law. Should the more encompassing definition win?

Examining the cause of the family’s dislocation is a large part of identifying homeless pupils who need transportation. Charles Skeen, director of transportation for the Fort Bend Independent School District (FBISD) in Texas, has found a variety of situations that require special solutions. Children may be left homeless by their parents’ eviction; they may be forced to live with relatives or on their own because of a parent’s incarceration, substance abuse or death; they may be abandoned by their parents or kicked out because of behavioral problems; extended family households may rupture; or the family may have lost their home due to fire or some other catastrophe. The particular circumstances of a child’s petition, as well as a close working relationship with social services, can be the best tools in determining a course of action.

Transportation solutions
Once a homeless child has been identified, an array of transportation solutions become available to school districts. Matthews says the first difficulty is transporting the child while long-term solutions are considered.

“Doing this in three or four days is virtually impossible without providing a cab for at least the first few days while bus service is worked out. Sometimes cabs are the only option on a permanent basis,” Matthews says.

A less expensive option than taxis is using existing public transportation infrastructure. Burns of Adams 12 Five Star Schools suggests using bus tokens to provide children with access to public transit, but this solution is less useful in rural areas where such routes may be sparse or non-existent. Burns’ district has also supplied families with gas money and parts to fix faulty cars.

Another possibility Burns mentions is seeking out charitable contributions of cars for families without transportation. However, activities of this nature lead to questions of exactly what business school transportation officials are in and how their time can best be spent.

Despite all the innovative alternatives for transportation, most school districts are keeping things simple and redirecting their special-education or regular-education routes to accommodate the needs of homeless students.

Karen Johnson, director of transportation for Floyd County Schools in Kentucky, says the burden of complying with McKinney-Vento hasn’t been too great.

“Additional bus stops are made at shelters as needed. Nothing major has impacted our program,” Johnson says.

Neal Abramson, transportation director for the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District in California, says that although they are not transporting any homeless children now, they have used special-education vehicles for that purpose in the past.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Out-of-district headache
For school districts that are transporting homeless students, one of the more problematic situations officials run across is when children are temporarily housed outside the district. In those cases, Matthews still relies on his transportation infrastructure to ferry the kids to school.

“Basically, if they go to our school, we provide the transportation,” he says. “Working this out with other districts has not been a very cooperative effort, not that we don’t get along with them, but they usually don’t have buses coming this way, and transfers or other fancy plans don’t work well. So we often schedule a bus to travel an hour or more to go get kids outside the area. Not good for them or for us, in our opinion.”

Fort Bend’s Skeen also relies on extended routes to move children. He has sent drivers to pick up children in motels that lie outside his district’s boundaries, but also has coordinated with the Houston Independent School District (HISD).

“We had one situation where the children were residing at a shelter in Houston,” Skeen says. “The information was shared with the transportation offices in both districts. The plan was to have HISD drop the students off at a certain point and FBISD would pick up the children from that point to get them to school. The parents, however, were convinced that in the best interest of the children it would be better to enroll the children in the school closest to the shelter.”

Burdens vary widely
Just as the arrangements for transporting homeless children vary, so do the costs. Johnson says her Kentucky school district has only had minor cost increases, while Matthews has found McKinney-Vento to be financially burdensome.

“While we have received some funding to support this, the number of students requiring this service has been so demanding it exceeds the available funds. Basically, we just absorb the costs in our budget overruns,” Matthews says.

Part of the difficulty in funding these programs has to do with confusion about the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) guidelines for Title I funds. Although organizations like the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services have urged the DOE to allow allocation of Title I funds for transportation, arguing that getting children to school is a necessary component of educating them; the guidelines released in July 2003 expressly forbade that.

Says Burns, “We know we can’t use Title I funds for transportation. The Title I funds that are available are very limited, and transportation is only one use for them. I don’t know how many transportation departments have collected data to demonstrate how much money this is costing. Yet another unfunded mandate.”

To resolve the budgetary crunch that McKinney-Vento has left many school districts in, the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) suggests pursuing alternative sources of funding for transportation, including corporate sponsorship. School districts may also consider coordinating with other public agencies that provide transportation to those on public assistance.

Preparing to pay
Just as homelessness is no longer confined to urban shelters, the costs of transporting homeless kids are now a potential burden for every school district.

John Clements, transportation director for King’s Canyon Unified School District (Calif.), does not have any homeless students in his district, but he has considered the possibility.

King’s Canyon is in the Central Valley, and Clements is particularly worried about children displaced to neighboring mountain communities that would then have to be bused down to their school of origin.

“I’m in a 600-square-mile rural district, and there are maybe four motels that might be possible homeless residences. I can see where it would require a unique transportation arrangement that doesn’t exist right now,” Clements says.

The presence of a new women’s and children’s shelter in the southern part of the county may also mean a new challenge for his department, which has already increased walking distances to make up for budget shortfalls. Clements says the shelter will provide a service, but could also create a concentration of children who need to be transported long distances to school.

Collaboration urged
Despite the strains that complying with McKinney-Vento can cause a school transportation provider, there are resources available to make the process smoother. Skeen credits a collaborative atmosphere between transportation and social service departments for their ease of implementation. “When a problem arises, the homeless children and youth liaison will communicate with transportation and the social workers who are in constant contact with the families to resolve any difficulties,” he says.

Burns also recommends that transportation officials collect data and present it to their boards of education and legislators.

“[Refusing to allocate Title I funds for transportation] is a short-sighted approach to a comprehensive problem,” Burns says. “School superintendents are woefully undereducated. Transporters should educate their boards of education.”

Caroline Casey is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.

Related Topics: homeless students

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