The Department of Education recently issued three pieces of guidance, including detailed non-regulatory guidance, a student fact sheet, and a “Dear Colleague” letter, all of which address meeting the needs of homeless students as required by the McKinney-Vento Act, amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”). The ESSA amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act take effect October 1, 2016. The Department of Education highlights that over 40% of formerly homeless students indicated that they dropped out of school while homeless, and nearly 60% of formerly homeless students indicated that their schools did a poor job supporting them. The ESSA thus seeks to provide homeless children and youths with protections, services, aid, and support from their state and local educational agencies.

In its guidance, the DOE emphasizes the role of the Local Education Agency (LEA) liaisons. Each LEA must establish at least one individual as its local liaison, whose responsibility is to coordinate “services to ensure that homeless children and youths enroll in school and have the opportunity to succeed academically.” Specifically, local liaisons are required to ensure that parents and guardians of homeless children know about the educational opportunities available for their children, that parents have meaningful chances to participate in the education of their children, and that children are enrolled in and afforded full and equal opportunity to succeed in school and related services, including preschool, Head Start, and early intervention services. The Guidance also directs local liaisons to provide these further specific supports: [1]

  • Ensure that school personnel identify homeless children and youths through outreach and coordination activities with other entities and agencies;
  • Ensure that schools provide homeless families referrals to health, dental, mental health, and substance abuse services, housing services, and other appropriate services;
  • Ensure that schools publish public notice of the educational rights of homeless students in places frequented by parents and guardians of such children, and by unaccompanied youths, including schools, shelters, public libraries, and soup kitchens, in a manner and form understandable to the parents and guardians and unaccompanied youths;
  • Ensure that enrollment disputes are mediated in accordance with the requirements of the McKinney-Vento Act;
  • Ensure that schools inform parents and guardians and unaccompanied youths of all transportation services, including transportation to and from the school of origin, and are assisted in accessing transportation services;
  • Ensure that school personnel receive professional development and other support; and
  • Ensure that unaccompanied youths are enrolled in school, have opportunities to meet the same challenging State academic standards as the State establishes for other children, are informed of their status as independent students under the Higher Education Act of 1965, and their right to receive verification of this status from the local liaison.

Many of these requirements are also required by the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act, which is aligned to the McKinney-Vento Act.

The guidance also stresses that the ESSA amendments require privacy regarding a homeless student’s records and living situation. Specifically, FERPA requires confidentiality of records that include a student’s personally identifiable information (“PII”), except that directory information can generally be disclosed. While a student’s address can typically be designated as directory information, information related to a homeless student’s living situation is not directory information and must be treated confidentially.

The Guidance recommends that school districts provide training to their personnel on how to identify, report, and support homeless students. The guidance places special emphasis on the identification and support of homeless preschool children and unaccompanied homeless youths. It should also be noted that the ESSA amendments remove “awaiting foster care placement” from the definition of homeless children and youths. This particular amendment, however, does not take effect until December 10, 2016 for Illinois school districts.

The DOE’s guidance provides extensive information for school districts regarding the educational rights and protections of homeless students and obligations of districts and states. School Boards should contact their education counsel with any questions concerning the amendments in preparation for their implementation on October 1, 2016.