How Lynchburg City Schools is ensuring everyone has access to education
On July 22, 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The first significant legislative response to homelessness at the time, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provided federal funds for homeless shelter programs, including support for children and students experiencing homelessness.
Under the McKinney-Vento Act, children who are sharing housing due to economic hardship or loss of housing; living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds due to lack of alternative accommodations; living in emergency or transitional shelters; or living in parks, cars, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, or train/bus stations will receive transportation to and from school free of charge, allowing them to attend their school of origin—the last school they attended when they first became homeless—regardless of what district their family lives in. Under the McKinney-Vento Act, schools are also required to register children who are experiencing homelessness even if they lack required documents such as immunization records or proof of residence.
For states to implement the Act, they must designate a statewide homeless coordinator who will be responsible for reviewing policies and creating procedures to ensure their state’s students are able to attend school. On the local level, school districts must appoint an education liaison who will ensure school staff is aware of the rights of their students who are experiencing homelessness, to provide public notice to their families, and to facilitate access to school and its transportation services.
In the state of Virginia, there are a number of reasons why a family may be experiencing homelessness. According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, the reasons can range from lack of affordable housing in an area and poverty to health problems, domestic violence, natural or other disasters, or abuse/neglect/serious family dysfunction that results in unaccompanied youth. In fact, according to a recent statistic from William & Mary School of Education, in partnership with Project Hope-Virginia, 17,496 students identified as homeless during the 2019-2020 school year in Virginia—a figure that is up 77 percent since the 2006-2007 school year. According to the City of Lynchburg’s 2018 Housing Stability Profile, 96 children were identified as homeless in the Lynchburg area.
For the last decade, the state of Virginia has been a trailblazer in closing achievement gaps between homeless and low-income students and their peers who have stable housing.
While there are a number of federal, state, and local organizations who are working tirelessly to combat homelessness and ensure safe, equitable housing for everyone, William & Mary School of Education and Project Hope-Virginia are the “boots on the ground” for ensuring students experiencing homelessness continue to have access to fundamental education. The Virginia Department of Education appointed William & Mary School of Education as the state coordinator for Project Hope-Virginia, which ensures enrollment, attendance, and school success for children and youth experiencing homelessness. Funding for Project Hope-Virginia is authorized under the McKinney-Vento Act and works to offer public awareness across the commonwealth and offer subgrants to local school divisions. Under Project Hope-Virginia, local school divisions and their appointed education liaisons can develop customized programs to meet the needs of homeless children and youth in their area.
For Lynchburg City Schools and its Homeless Education & Foster Care Liaison, Arnold Corneal, that begins with making sure that families and students understand that a student cannot be denied school enrollment when school records or other enrollment documentation are not immediately available.
Lynchburg City Schools and their Homeless Education initiative through Project Hope-Virginia is aiming to educate parents on the educational rights for children lacking fixed, regular, and adequate housing, including an automatic qualification for free breakfast and lunch programs within all Lynchburg City Schools. They are also ensuring families understand that their student has the right to participate in extracurricular activities, such as sports or clubs, as well as all federal, state, or local programs for which the student is eligible. What’s more, youth who aren’t accompanied by a parent or guardian who are lacking fixed, regular, or adequate housing have the same rights.
Children who experience homelessness are reported to have higher incidences of acute and chronic illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, which ultimately impacts a child’s ability to be in school and participate in the classroom. For older students, a youth who experiences homelessness is 87% more likely to drop out of school than their steadily housed peers. With important initiatives like Project Hope-Virginia and Lynchburg City Schools’ local efforts, on-time graduation rates among students who are experiencing homelessness are already increasing—with roughly 79 to 80 percent of students who are homeless graduating on time, according to 2016 statistics for the state of Virginia.
“Schools give children and youth experiencing homelessness hope and a chance for the future” is the motto for Project Hope-Virginia, which is a battle cry that Lynchburg City Schools bravely echoes.