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Educators need more flexibility and resources to better serve homeless students, not less.
Imagine a young boy, carefully pulling shirts out of a clothes dryer, meticulously folding each one before sliding it into his backpack.
Now imagine those clothes are the only things the boy owns, and he’s washing them inside his school before classes begin. You see, he’s homeless, one of the growing number of children in California whose families have no permanent place to live.
The number of homeless students in 2011 topped 1 million for the first time, according to the U.S. Department of Education — an increase of 271,177 students over the 2007-2008 school year. An estimated 42 percent are younger than 6.
In California, nearly 250,000 children experienced homelessness last year, up from 220,000 in 2010 and 175,000 in 2009.
I visited the Monarch School last year. The school is an innovative public-private partnership between the San Diego County Office of Education and a local nonprofit, the Monarch School Project. Nearly 350 students a year receive an education similar to what is offered nearby in a traditional school setting.
What sets Monarch apart from its neighboring schools — aside from being open year-round — is the additional support services for students including transportation, health care, food, clothing, academic advising, expressive arts therapy and counseling.
Typical homeless students change schools two or three times during a school year, with each transition creating an additional challenge. Homeless students are twice as likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or drop out of high school.
But the Monarch School proves that doesn’t have to be the outcome. The school is proud of its 93 percent attendance rate and estimates that for every six months a student spends at the school, they progress one year academically.
When a child first comes to the school, a team of teachers, advisers and volunteers works to address the student’s social and emotional well-being. Students are given an academic plan and the school works with parents to identify what resources are available for their specific needs.
This approach eliminates many barriers to education that homeless students otherwise face and allows them to start looking toward the future. It’s clear that Monarch has developed a formula that motivates and supports its students.
For most students, their time at Monarch is temporary, typically lasting about six months. Once their family secures stable housing, they return to their school of origin or the neighborhood school located near their new home, another tactic to increase a student’s stability.
A major obstacle to address the challenges facing homeless children is funding. Despite increasing numbers of homeless students, federal funding continues to decline. Between 2009 and 2011, California saw a 43 percent increase in homeless children — during the same period, federal funds were slashed by 44 percent.
Congress will soon consider reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which jeopardizes the future of Monarch School.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a law intended to help homeless students, prohibits schools that serve only homeless students; however, an exemption within the law allows Monarch to remain open.
The Senate bill to reauthorize ESEA that passed out of committee removes that exemption, which means if the legislation were to pass the full Senate in its current form, Monarch would be forced to close its doors.
Ending an important program like Monarch would be a step in the wrong direction for homeless children and families, and I remain committed to working with my colleagues to keep Monarch open.
I believe educators need more flexibility and resources to better serve homeless students, not less. I am committed to finding solutions to help support and nurture homeless children, and one of those tools must be to support and educate policy-makers on models that work.
Monarch School is an example of a high-quality school that also improves the lives of its students and families, and it deserves our support.
Dianne Feinstein is the senior U.S. senator from California. Feinstein’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.