Nearly 80,000 homeless Florida students face challenges

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Florida – This school year, all 9-year-old Livia Kukec wants are friends she won’t have to leave behind.

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

For a year and a half, the Kukec family had no stable place to live. They moved from hotel to motel to Airbnb, after mom Amy Kukec fled a very abusive relationship in Illinois. Kukec is now on disability, following a back injury caused by abuse. Her children have both been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that experts say plagues many homeless children.

What would you like to know

  • Homeless children – like Livia and Jack Kukec – often face an increasing risk of physical and mental health problems
  • Nearly 80,000 Florida public school students were homeless last year, according to the state Department of Education
  • The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act guarantees homeless children “equal access to the same free and appropriate public education, including public preschool education, as that provided to other children and young people”
  • Education advocate Pam Lindemann recommends parents write to their school principal and request a meeting to discuss helping children with academic difficulties

“Often they are faced with an increased risk of physical and mental health problems: depression, anxiety, PTSD, higher suicide rates,” said Dr Rajni Shankar-Brown, Justice Education Chair social 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 some 80,000 Florida public school students who experienced homelessness last year, according to the state Department of Education. Of this total, nearly 14% is concentrated in the Orlando MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area), made up of the counties of Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole.

“We have some of the highest numbers of homeless children and youth in the country,” Shankar-Brown said of Florida.

McKinney-Vento Rights of Homeless Students

Children are considered by the Ministry of Education to be homeless if they “do not have a fixed, regular and adequate night residence”. They have certain rights under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which guarantees homeless children “equal access to the same free and appropriate public education, including public preschool education, as that provided. to other children and young people ”.

Part of this “equal access” is forcing schools to enroll homeless youth immediately, even if they cannot present the documents usually required for enrollment, such as proof of residence, medical records and documents. birth certificates. It is up to each public school district to designate a Homeless Liaison Officer: a person responsible for identifying and supporting homeless children and youth.

But mom Amy Kukec says the Osceola County School District last year did not support her children enough.

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

Kukec alleges staff members discriminated against her family because she was homeless and did not provide enough support for her children, even though they struggled academically and with the required technology for virtual learning. At the end of April, after moving her family from one temporary residence to another, Kukec received several emails from the school principal, indicating that she should quickly provide an updated residential address. Otherwise, her children would not be able to stay in school.

“Addresses are something that’s a privilege that not everyone has in the United States,” Shankar-Brown said. “Children and young people who experience homelessness often have great mobility.

“Especially now, as we see an increase in homelessness… we have to be very, very careful and make sure that we protect the rights of our children and young people. “

In Osceola County, a small team of district Families in Transition (FIT) staff members help identify and support homeless students.

“Our department which works closely with FIT families has provided resources and support to advocate for the rights of this family,” district spokesperson Dana Schafer wrote in an email to Spectrum News 13.

Schafer said the district asked for Kukec’s address so his children could be bused to the same school they were attending – another right granted to homeless youth under the McKinney Act -Vento.

Beyond special arrangements for enrollment, homeless students also need extra support to be successful in school, experts said. According to Martha Are, CEO of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, homeless students score between 40% and 50% poorer in subjects like English, science and math.

“Their learning is compromised, they have greater absenteeism and they are more likely to be disciplined,” Are said. “It’s a lot to overcome for these children, and it’s also a challenge for the school system.

School districts forced to support homeless students

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

“Most people don’t understand that the public school district has a legal obligation… says Lindemann.

When a child is struggling, 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 specialized education and services, in addition to accommodation.

“They are very different,” Lindemann said. “The school district is paying more attention to an IEP. They are taken much more seriously by the district and by school staff.

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

“The school district gives kids a 504 plan because it’s easier to give, it’s easier to put in place. The school district is not as responsible for setting up a 504 plan, ”Lindemann said. “And parents don’t know the difference.”

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

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

After more than 20 years of work in special education, Lindemann has a big take home message for parents.

“Trust your instincts. If you know your child is struggling and you know they need help and you are pretty sure the school is supposed to help them, chances are they are. Lindemann said. “And there’s a good chance he won’t. whatever they’re supposed to do.

Molly Duerig is a member of the Report for America body that covers affordable housing for Spectrum News 13. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues. .

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