Dallas has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation. Dallas ISD is doing its best to keep homeless youth in school through its Homeless Education Program.
According to the Texas Education Agency, more than 100,000 Texas students experience homelessness every year, and DISD students make up about three percent of that number. Despite a small decrease in DISD’s number of homeless students from 2013-14 to 2014-15, the number is still up almost 20 percent from 2012-13. The Texas Homeless Education Office has not released the numbers for the 2015-16 school year.
DISD’s Homeless Education Program, which is funded through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Improvements Act, protects students without stable housing against discrimination and allows them to remain in their school even when they do not live within the school’s jurisdiction.
Homeless Education Program manager Mark Pierce said the law “protects their rights not to be withdrawn from school if someone finds out they are not living in the area and are homeless.”
Other ways the program helps homeless students maintain stability are by training staff to provide support and counseling services to children and families, and by making sure students outside of the area have means of transportation — such as DART passes — so their attendance isn’t impacted.
Homelessness, as defined by the McKinney-Vento Act, refers to children and youth who lack “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and includes “children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons.”
“You have kids who for one reason or another can’t live at home,” Pierce said. “They don’t want to self-identify because they don’t want to end up in the hands of CPS and end up in a foster care home. Or they just don’t want to be entered into the system at all.”
There are many reasons why a child might experience unstable housing: family issues, economic disruption, racial disparities, mental health disorders, and substance abuse. Indicators a child might be homeless include going to school fatigued, hungry, or wearing the same clothes for days in a row; hoarding food and belongings; changing attendance patterns; and exhibiting academic, behavior, health, or hygiene problems.
W.T. White High School Principal Michelle Thompson says it is important to rely on the watchful eye of teachers, staff, and the administration.
“There’s ongoing training provided by our training office,” Thompson said. “All the staff gets trained to identify [homeless students] and to provide some general services.”
While homelessness can create academic roadblocks for students, Thompson said she sees many students push through them to prevent falling behind in classes, even if it means getting to school early to utilize campus resources, such as technology, the library, showers, and supplies.
“For some, it’s just an overwhelming emotional experience, and the academics do suffer,” Thompson said. “For others school is their one beacon. It’s a safe place, [they’ve] got food, shelter, people who care about [them], and they tend to do okay.”
According to Pierce, the program is slowly beginning to add drop-in centers for homeless students. One is slated to start at Thomas Jefferson High School. These centers provide youth who may not want to admit their circumstances a place to gather supplies like uniforms, hygiene products, and food.
“My goal for the next few years is to start a drop-in center at every single high school,” Pierce said. “As far as elementary, I’d love to have more money to pay for after-school programs.”