It’s the dog days of summer so most of us don’t even have school on our radars. But August is the perfect time to start planning for the year ahead. Education is the key to realizing an independent and healthy adulthood. It sets up access to opportunities for employment and career pathways. If you support a young person who is homeless or unstably housed, then you know firsthand that having a positive educational experience can be elusive from some students. School absences that result in knowledge gaps, transitions due to moving locations, access to clothing, hygiene and school supplies, unmet special learning needs, and lack of documentation can end up being a deal-breaker for some students. The good news is that there are resources and supports available which can make a significant difference in realizing a positive school experience. Here are five simple actions you can take to “stack the deck” in the favor of youth.
The McKinney-Vento and now Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mandate an array of resources and supports be in place to address many of the hurdles facing youth who are unaccompanied, homeless, and/or unstably housed. There are also resources in place for those in or formerly in the foster care system. These laws have strengthened and improved over the years so it’s important to stay current. Educate yourself so you can educate the youth and others in positions to support the youth. The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) are devoted to this issue and offer some excellent resources to assist you. Their Unaccompanied Youth Toolkit for High School Counselors and McKinney-Vento Liaisons provides information that can help you as well as those in these roles at your local school districts. The National Center for Homeless Education is the US Department of Education’s technical assistance and information center for youth who are homeless. In August, NCHE will present a series of webinars to help understand the key provisions of McKinney-Vento under the ESSA of 2015. So, however you learn best, there’s a way to learn about these resources.
Be the “go-to” at your program/agency who understands these important Acts of legislation and have links to Fact Sheets and recorded webinars that you’ve found helpful ready to pass on to others that express interest. Your awareness could make the difference between a positive year at school and a not so positive one. Here’s an example: Ms. Davie, a youthworker, listened one Friday afternoon as one of her charges at the group home cried and shared news that the school told her she could no longer attend the school because she no longer lived in their district. The student was doing well and had developed supportive relationships with peers and teachers. She was devastated. Fortunately, Ms. Davie knew her facts and was able to help the school understand that under law, this student had the right to stay in her home school of choice. And she did.
Administrative staff are year-long employees so learning the name and contact information for your district’s liaison doesn’t have to wait until the teachers return. Before the year begins is a great time to set up a time to talk about how your agency and the school district can work to together to support the youth you serve in having a positive and productive school year. Spend time sharing the insights you’ve gained from the youth in your program about their hurdles and what has helped. With much of their attention being needed to support whole families who are homeless, unaccompanied homeless youth are often not as apparent for them and youth are often invested in blending in.
Most communities have resource fairs and other Back-to-School events where school supplies are given out to students in need along with helpful information about how to access food and other needed supplies. Do the research and make the calls – have a calendar posted for easy view – arrange a trip to visit one – get on the list in case the resources can come to the youth at your program. Lacking these supplies can be a deal-breaker for youth but learning about the resources available can go beyond these fundamental supplies. Secondary education is designed to be a step toward the bigger picture of job, career and self-sufficiency. When youth are able to see beyond the year to where it can take them, their investment in education takes on a whole new meaning. Learn about the post-secondary training and education opportunities that could be available to them – what skills and education would be needed to access them. During the past two years, Workforce Investment Boards have been developing plans to comply with their mandate to engage and provide disconnected youth with access to education and training that will support them in pursuing a career pathway. Meet with the lead for youth services at your local workforce board to learn about the supports they’ve contracted specifically designed to be responsive to the unique circumstances facing disconnected youth.
Talk with youth about what they see ahead for themselves and how education plays a part in realizing their vision of their future self. Listen to their impressions of their educational experience thus far – ask what worked and what could have been better. Reflect back what you are hearing to make sure you understand. This can also bring insights forward that could assist them in planning for a successful year. Share information about resources that could be helpful and offer to support them in accessing them. Encourage them to take the reins of their educational experience.