The number of homeless children in the Derry Cooperative School District has remained stable for the past year, but it is up from a couple of years ago – and those are only the students who report themselves as homeless.
Cara Kuehl, district coordinator for the McKinney-Vento Act, the Federal statutes governing the education of homeless children, said recently that School Administrative Unit (SAU) 10 currently has 15 children in grades Kindergarten-8 who are classified as “students in temporary housing,” and another seven at Pinkerton Academy. Derry students are tuitioned to Pinkerton for high school.
Kuehl attributed the number of students eligible for McKinney-Vento services to general economic hardships. “More families are in shelters, or doubling up,” she said.
But according to Kuehl, more families are also coming forward. “It’s more talked about in public, and the students and their parents are thinking, ‘It’s okay for me to talk,’” she said.
When Kuehl first became involved with homeless students, they were often staying in shelters or being housed in a hotel. She observed that there are more options now, including Family Promise, where families without a home stay in a network of local churches while receiving an array of services.
Amazingly, Kuehl said, some families come from other parts of the country to New Hampshire because they’ve heard about its network of services. “One mom told us she reached out to someone on the Internet, and they told her the supports she needed were here,” Kuehl said.
One of McKinney-Vento’s pillars is that children be able to go to school in their “home” district, if they choose to. Transportation is a big part of this, Kuehl said, whether it’s bringing a Derry child to school from wherever he or she is staying or sending a child in temporary Derry housing to their home district. “We sometimes share the cost with the other district,” she said.
The children are given lunches, usually through the Federal Free and Reduced program, and they are assessed and given access to any of the educational services available to children in permanent homes. That’s preschool or Head Start, Title I, English Language Learner services or anything else, according to Kuehl.
“If the student’s home school is not a Title I school, then we look at how we can give them comparable services,” she said.
Academics are also a strong focus, she said. Research shows that children in temporary housing lose an average of four months of academic progress for every move. SAU 10 fights back with tutoring, either with classroom teachers after school or a tutoring company funded by Title I. “It’s individualized,” Kuehl said, “to what a student needs.”
There’s also frequently emotional damage, she said, and counseling services are provided to any child in temporary housing. “It’s traumatic for a child to be raised in shelters,” she observed. “Children’s brains are wired and formed differently.”
She and the district staff, including social worker Maryanne Taylor, look at the whole child – and the whole family, engaging also with parents and siblings too young for school.
“We are always asking what’s in the best interests of the child,” she said.
Keeping the child in their “home” school is often the solution, she said. But in other cases, “Is it time to transition to a new neighborhood?”
Middle-school students, especially, need to be like their peers, Kuehl observed. And in 2015, that means social media. The district makes an effort to connect these students with access to e-books and iPad minis, she said.
“We are growing as a community, to understand more,” Kuehl said.
The McKinney-Vento Act allows children to choose from:
• the school they attended when permanently housed;
• the last school they attended; or
• the school located in the area where they are temporarily housed.
In addition, it states that students have the right to:
• Go to school, no matter where they live or how long they have lived there;
• Choose to attend either the local school or school of origin;
• Get free transportation to and from the school of origin;
• Enroll in and attend school immediately, without proper documentation;
• Have access to the same programs and services that are available to other students; and
• Get free school meals without an application.
Those who think they qualify for McKinney-Vento services may contact Kuehl at 432-1210 or the state coordinator, Lynda Thistle Elliott, at 271-3840 or Lynda.Thistle.Elliott@doe.nh.gov.