“Any midyear disruption that can be avoided needs to be avoided.... We need to stabilize kids’ education and not have these bureaucratic boundary lines get in the way,” says Barbara Duffield, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Washington.
The Norwalk district claims that McDowell decided to move him on her own, without telling Norwalk officials she was homeless. McDowell claims some authority called her and told her she had to move her son to a school in Bridgeport, where her most recent permanent address had been.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires states to ensure that homeless children have equal access to education, and to reduce barriers to school stability. “That’s the federal law’s entire point, to look at that child’s best educational interest,” Ms. Duffield says.
The economy is ratcheting up the number of students who don’t have a steady place to live. In 2008-09, the number of K-12 students identified as homeless was 956,914, up 41 percent from two years before, according to NAEHCY. Among the states that have sent the group more recent numbers, the increases range from 5 percent in Oregon to more than 25 percent in Nebraska.
Under McKinney-Vento, homelessness includes not just living in shelters, motels, or cars, but also doubling up with other families because of loss of housing or economic hardship.
The law allows students to stay in the school they were attending when they became homeless even if their family is moving around, or to move to the school in the area that has become their primary nighttime residence.
The McDowell case, apparently the first such criminal case in Connecticut, highlights the challenges school districts can face in identifying homeless students.