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MCESA Works to Keep Homeless Children in School

March 21, 2012

This is the eleventh in a series of articles on agencies that participate in the Midland County Continuum of Care.

What happens to a child’s schooling when homelessness disrupts the family? It’s complete upheaval – loss of home and belongings, abrupt goodbye to friends, separation from family, unannounced exit from school.

Thanks, however, to an act originally passed by Congress and signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and since amended and reauthorized, one island of refuge in the stormy sea of homelessness remains. The child doesn’t have to change schools.

Now known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, it became Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. Title VII-B of the Act assures that when homelessness turns a child’s life upside-down, the child’s school remains the same.

The Act, as reaffirmed in 2002, specifies, “Each State educational agency shall ensure that each child of a homeless individual and each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.”

Michelle Bahr, Director of Special Education, MCESA

According to Michelle Bahr , Director of Special Education for Midland County Educational Service Agency (MCESA) with responsibility to implement the Act, the first alert that homelessness has occurred often comes when school bus drivers report a child as a no-show at the bus stop.

Efforts then begin to locate the child. “It’s very difficult when we don’t know what’s happened to a child. We do everything we can to find out where the kids are,” said Bahr.

Once the child is located – in a shelter, with relatives or friends, in foster care, sleeping in a car – the parent is assured that the child can stay in the same school.

The next hurdle is transportation. This can be as simple as adjoining districts working creatively to connect bus routes. “The transportation managers in the school districts give us great cooperation,” according to Bahr.

Where bus transportation won’t work, Dial-a-Ride and County Connection may. Otherwise school districts will sometimes provide gas cards which reimburse at the IRS rate so adults responsible for the child can afford to drive to the school.

Bahr told of one child who had moved out of the home district and was staying with a great-grandmother. “The mother was in tears when she learned that her child would not have to change schools. Many parents are very grateful.”

There are clear advantages to the child whose schooling continues undisrupted. “There is no lapse of instructional time,” said Bahr. “Especially for children with IEPs (Individualized Educational Plan for special needs students) any lapse means regression.”

“Emotionally school is the same as a hometown with its continuity and familiarity,” she said. “Parents also find it a big help to have kids in school.”

Bahr came to her present position with deep appreciation for what the schools have done for her own family. She and her husband have a child with special needs. “I am grateful for what MCESA did for my child and family. It is very gratifying to give back and help other parents.”

Trained as a general education classroom teacher, Bahr was inspired to achieve further certification in special education. She taught early childhood special education for the MCESA for ten years. She then became a Supervisor of Special Education for three years, and was named Director of Special Education this past July.

She faces a constant challenge. “A lot of families don’t understand what’s available. It is important that we train school staff, including those who answer the phone, on McKinney-Vento. They are key people in communicating what’s offered.”

Funds to implement Title VII come from Federal and State of Michigan grants and are tied to the annual “Point in Time” count of homeless people done every January. In the most recent count there were 517 homeless in Midland County, of whom 187 are under the age of 18.

MCESA participates in Midland County Continuum of Care, a collaboration of 28 agencies working to prevent homelessness by providing housing-related services to those who are homeless or living in substandard housing.


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