Naperville Student Newspaper Offers Invaluable Analysis to Help Homeless Students
Naperville, IL, one of the best cities in the country, has again grabbed headlines for extraordinary accomplishments. James Holzhauer, a product of Naperville’s excellent school systems, just captured Jeopardy’s Masters championship, raking in a cool half-million for his brainy abilities. This professional gambler, now living in the Las Vegas area, has raked in over $3 million on this popular game show.
Less recognized, but more exceptional, comes from journalists at Naperville Central High School’s newspaper, the Central Times. They just published a comprehensive report that suggests 80% of Illinois’ school districts are likely under identifying students experiencing homelessness.
A spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) confirmed to the reporter,
“It is legally the responsibility of the [school] district to proactively identify students who may qualify and not wait for them to identify themselves.”
Proactively implies action, required by law. The Central Times report estimates as many as 55,000 students were unidentified in 2021, with schools identifying 37,000 (42,377 in 2022-’23). Despite outstanding efforts of some districts, too many Illinois students needing support to succeed in school are not getting the help they need, help required by law. These students, with no home, no resources, no educational guidance must make it on their own.
The federal McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Act (MV) mandates that public school districts take certain steps to make sure homeless students get support to succeed in school. Those steps include assigning a staff person as “homeless liaison,” responsible for identifying and assisting homeless students with enrollment, arranging transportation, and connecting them with services to help them succeed in school. Each district is required to have a homeless liaison. Maybe they exist on paper, but too many fail to exert the effort to get the assignment done.
Part of the failure, to be sure, falls on the paltry MV federal funding for states and districts to provide needed supports. (One could argue that providing housing would be more cost-effective, and beneficial, to all involved, but that’s not the purview of these laws.) To be fair, schools are reeling under multiple challenges, from funding to staffing, and more.
But 36 years of experience has taught me that too few educators understand what homelessness means for their students, therefore, in some districts, little effort is exerted to see if any students qualify for help. That’s why I’ve spent the past 18 years living in a van and traveling cross-country to chronicle family and youth homelessness. My one-woman nonprofit, HEAR US Inc., has created videos and published books for school personnel and others who need to hear firsthand accounts of homelessness and what school means. (VIDEOS)
Naperville, and Aurora, IL, stand tall in the world of homeless students’ educational rights
Among those rights: immediate enrollment, remaining in their school of origin or enrolling in the school nearest where they’re staying, fee waivers, free lunch, and transportation. These requirements came from the 1994 bipartisan passage of the Illinois Education for Homeless Children Act after a family from Indian Prairie District 204 (Naperville) was barred from their schools when they became homeless in 1993. (LINK)
The family had moved into the only area family shelter, Hesed House in west Aurora, where I worked at the time. The mother, Ms. Boatwright, wanted her three children to remain in their schools, a provision feebly stated in the-then federal law. The district disagreed and sued the mother. We helped the mother get an attorney and counter-sued.
Following Ms. Boatwright’s loss in court, we successfully fought for a state law to improve access to school for homeless students, with much help from Naperville’s Republican State Representative Mary Lou Cowlishaw (dec.). In 2002, thanks to leadership of Naperville area’s Republican Congresswoman Judy Biggert (ret.), the Illinois law became the core of the current federal McKinney-Vento Act, which added the helpful provision requiring each district to appoint a homeless liaison.
A law is only good if people know about it and comply. Back in 2003, I was part of the Illinois State Board of Education’s concerted effort to get school districts on board with this much-needed legislation. I became aware of how few educators were aware of or understood family/youth homelessness. That led to my nomadic awareness-raising filmmaking journey.
Naperville Central Journalists’ Findings
Of the many take-aways from this exclusive analysis, beyond the massive failure of schools to do their assignments, is that this group of Naperville high school journalists took a strong stand on behalf of thousands of invisible homeless students across the state.
They astutely discerned possible reasons for the negligence:
[It]…involves a population so hidden it’s often forgotten, laws so unknown few know how to access help, and nonexistent enforcement that allows those responsible for implementing the law to cut corners.
I couldn’t agree more. Family and youth homelessness, despite its magnitude, gets scant attention or resources from federal, state and local governments. We’ve fought for improved consideration and additional federal resources for decades, with few results.
Over the past 18 years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of students across the country, with families or on their own, constantly hearing of the importance of the McKinney-Vento Act. I’ve witnessed amazing homeless liaisons in action and witnessed what a difference those efforts make. School stability is often the only part of their lives these kids can count on. It’s the least we can do.
We expect much from students. We must require school districts to comply with laws, especially those that benefit students needing support. Failing to acknowledge their existence, as hundreds of Illinois districts apparently have done, makes a powerful negative statement to thousands of invisible students.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Central Times for examining these data. The best way to pay that debt is to ratchet up our efforts to give these invisible students what every young person deserves — a chance to succeed. Housing stability would also help.