In Florida, nearly 80,000 homeless students face unique challenges

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — This school year, all 9-year-old Livia Kukec wants is some friends she won’t have to leave behind.

“It’d be nice to have some friends that I won’t have to move away from,” she said. “Every time I move, they go away.”

For the last year and a half, the Kukec family didn’t have a stable place to live. They bounced from hotel to motel to Airbnb, after mom Amy Kukec fled a highly abusive relationship in Illinois. Kukec is now on disability, the result of a back injury suffered from the abuse. Her kids are both diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome — a condition experts say plagues many children experiencing homelessness.

What You Need To Know

Children experiencing homelessness – like Livia and Jack Kukec – are often facing an increasing risk for physical and mental health issues

Nearly 80,000 Florida public school students experienced homelessness this past year, according to the state’s Department of Education

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act guarantees homeless children “equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths”

Education advocate Pam Lindemann recommends parents write to their school principal and request a meeting to discuss getting help for children who are struggling academically

“Often they are facing an increased risk for physical and mental health issues: depression, anxiety, PTSD, higher suicide rates,” said Dr. Rajni Shankar-Brown, endowed chair of social justice education at Stetson University and vice president of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Livia and her 11-year-old brother Jack are just two of the nearly 80,000 Florida public school students who experienced homelessness this past year, according to the state’s Department of Education. Of that total, almost 14% are concentrated in the Orlando MSA (metropolitan statistical area), comprised of Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

“We have some of the highest numbers in terms of child and youth homelessness in the nation,” Shankar-Brown said of Florida.

Homeless students’ McKinney-Vento rights

Children are considered by the Department of Education to be homeless if they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.” They have certain rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which guarantees homeless children “equal access to the same free, appropriate public education, including a public preschool education, as provided to other children and youths.”

Part of that “equal access” requires schools to immediately enroll youth experiencing homelessness, even if they can’t present documentation usually required for enrollment, such as proof of residency, health records and birth certificates. It’s up to each public school district to designate a homeless liaison: someone responsible for identifying and supporting homeless children and youth.

But mom Amy Kukec says this past year, the Osceola County School District didn’t adequately support her children.

“Being homeless, they made it as difficult as possible,” Kukec said of staff at St. Cloud Elementary, where her children attended school last year — mostly virtually, because of the pandemic.

Kukec alleges staff members discriminated against her family for being homeless and didn’t provide her children enough support, even as they struggled academically and with the technology required for virtual learning. In late April, after moving her family from one temporary residence to another, Kukec received multiple emails from the school’s principal, stating she’d need to quickly provide an updated residential address. If not, her children couldn’t remain at the school.

“Addresses are something that is a privilege that not everybody has in the United States,” Shankar-Brown said. “Children and youth who are experiencing homelessness often have high mobility.

“Especially now, as we’re seeing the surges in homelessness rising … we have to be very, very careful, and make sure that we’re protecting the rights of our children and our youth.”

In Osceola County, a small team of staff on the district’s Families in Transition (F.I.T.) program help to identify and support homeless students.

“Our department that works closely with F.I.T. families has provided resources and support to uphold this family’s rights,” Dana Schafer, a spokesperson for the district, wrote in an email to Spectrum News 13.

Schafer said the district asked for Kukec’s address so her children could be bussed to the same school they’d been attending — another right granted to homeless youth under the McKinney-Vento Act.

Beyond special enrollment accommodations, students experiencing homelessness also need extra support to be successful in school, experts said. Unhoused students perform between 40% and 50% worse in subjects like English, science and math, according to Martha Are, CEO for the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida.

“Their learning is compromised, they have greater absenteeism, and they’re more likely to be subject to disciplinary action,” Are said. “It’s a lot for those kids to overcome, and it’s a challenge for the school system as well.”

School districts obligated to support students experiencing homelessness

Between their unstable housing situation, virtual learning and PTSD, Jack and Livia struggled to focus and excel academically last year. Kukec sought guidance from Pam Lindemann, an education advocate who helps parents access supportive services for their children from public school districts.

“Most people don’t understand that the public school district has a legal obligation … to identify children who are struggling, to evaluate them and then, if they qualify, to put an individualized education plan (IEP) in place for the child,” Lindemann said.

When a child struggles, a school can create two plans to support them: a 504 plan and an IEP, Lindemann said. A 504 plan provides accommodations, such as extra time for tests or homework. An IEP provides services and specialized instruction, in addition to accommodations.

“They’re very different,” Lindemann said. “The school district pays closer attention to an IEP. They’re taken much more seriously by the district and by school staff members.”

At St. Cloud Elementary, Kukec’s children both had 504 plans — one of which Kukec claims she never saw herself. Lindemann said in almost every case she handles, if a child has a 504 plan, he or she is eligible for an IEP — and likely would benefit more from it.

“The school district gives a 504 plan to children because they’re easier to give, they’re easier to put together. The school district is not as accountable for putting a 504 plan in place,” Lindemann said. “And the parents don’t know the difference.”

For children who are struggling academically, Lindemann recommends parents write to their school principal and request a meeting to discuss getting help for their child.

“You don’t even have to say the right words — ‘IEP”,” Lindemann said, explaining that under Florida law, schools have thirty days to meet with parents and discuss an evaluation after receiving such a written request. “If they don’t do that, then they’re out of compliance.”

After more than 20 years of working in special education, Lindemann has one big takeaway message for parents.

“Trust your gut. If you know your child is struggling and you know they need help and you’re pretty sure the school’s supposed to be helping them, chances are they’re supposed to be,” Lindemann said. “And chances are, they may not be doing everything they’re supposed to.”

Molly Duerig is a Report for America corps member who is covering affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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