By Paige Joki and Kate Burdick
Young people who experience homelessness are often rendered invisible. Without a safe, warm, stable place to sleep at night, they may be staying temporarily with a friend or “couch surfing” every night.
Many of these young people have fled abusive situations, have aged out of foster care or have experience in the justice system. Often they are completely on their own, without the support of a caring adult. They are also disproportionately people of color, LGBTQ-identifying young people, and young people with disabilities.
In a classroom of 30 students, about one young person ages 13-17 every year will experience homelessness on their own. Many will never be identified as experiencing homelessness.
Still, there are steps we can take to support them in achieving their goals for a bright future. Critical among those steps is providing youth with the necessary resources to support their success in school.
Youth who experience homelessness face systemic challenges to accessing the education they deserve often unlawfully turned away from school and prevented from enrolling because schools condition their enrollment on proof of a fixed address within the district.
Once enrolled, young people often encounter barriers to graduation related to their changing housing conditions.
As they change schools, educational records may be lost, or credits earned in a prior school may not count towards graduation in another district.
The young person may be asked to repeat classes ‒ or even grades. They may also be placed in inappropriate classrooms that lack the supports to meet their needs.
And all of this happens while students are doubled up in living spaces or temporarily staying in shelters or hotel rooms often without private space or any quiet spot to do homework. Imagine trying to learn, navigate adolescent social dynamics, and meet your high school graduation goals under these circumstances.
Numerous young people in Pennsylvania, like Marcie, live this experience. On her own and living in various emergency shelters, Marcie often had to change schools to be closer to where she was living. Her school records did not always follow.
In her original school, Marcie had been in the 12th grade, but her new school told her she would need to “repeat high school” and put her in 9th grade classes.
Faced with an unfamiliar school environment and these administrative barriers, Marcie stopped attending. Eventually, with support from the Education Law Center in getting her hard-earned credits recognized, Marcie was able to graduate on time.
Marcie’s struggles are not unique. Yet the majority of youth experiencing homelessness, desperately pursuing their education, don’t receive the support they need and instead find that school policies and practices actually work against them.
— ByJohnLMicek (@ByJohnLMicek) November 20, 2019
The same is true for youth re-entering the community from a juvenile justice facility, or youth in foster care whom the system has let bounce between foster homes or residential facilities.
Youth advocates in Juvenile Law Center’s Juveniles for Justice and Youth Fostering Change programs describe these challenges and propose policy solutions in a report entitled Operation: Education.
With these youth advocates, Education Law Center and Juvenile Law Center have been tirelessly pushing for comprehensive state legislation to remove these barriers to education for youth who change schools because they are experiencing homelessness or involved in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.
As we move into the holiday season, we note that November is National Youth Homelessness Prevention Month and National Runaway Prevention Month.
It is our duty this month and always to ensure youth get credit for the work they do, receive adequate graduate planning, and connect with supportive adults to help them navigate through high school.
We commend such Pennsylvania state legislators as Sens. Wayne Langerholc and Pat Browne, and Rep. Tarah Toohil, who have committed to introducing legislation to ensure these youth stay on track to graduate.
We implore all state legislators to support these efforts so that the needs of young people—and the urgent need to pass legislation that supports them—remain top of mind.
Paige Joki is a staff attorney at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia. Kate Burdick is a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center, also a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.