Today’s guest post comes to us from Laurene Heybach, director of the Law Project at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
Each year the start of school brings smiles and excitement throughout our town. Kids love getting the new supplies and backpacks. The faces of the children reveal a readiness for the new year with hopes high.
Nowhere is this excitement more stirring or poignant than in the eyes of homeless children and youth. Often living in chaotic, dismal or unstable circumstances, frequently hungry, these children and youth look forward to the community provided by school, a caring teacher or coach, friends and fun, a regular meal or two, familiarity and routine.
Thanks to the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless children and youth have the right to return to their home school and receive transportation to attend and participate in school activities, receive free breakfast, lunch and assistance with other needs. But none of this start-of-the-school-year excitement is realized if the first day of school arrives and there’s no transportation to get you there and no money to buy the train or bus pass. In Chicago, the free transit passes are distributed through the school. For some of our poorest families, getting to school in the first place to claim those free passes becomes a real obstacle so children and youth miss the first day or week or even a few weeks of school. This can leave a student feeling left out of things when he or she arrives late and can result in some kids starting out the school year behind their classmates. Fortunately, the McKinney-Vento Act also requires that school districts continuously identify “barriers” such as this faced by homeless students in enrolling, attending and succeeding in school.
This school year, finally, Chicago Public Schools listened to the long-time plea of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (“CCH”) see http://www.chicagonewscoop.org/advocates-claim-back-to-school-push-missing-key-piece/. Through a collaborative effort involving the Mayor’s office, too, the Chicago Transit Authority provided free rides to school-age kids –homeless or not– and for an accompanying adult to ensure attendance on the first day of school. Chicago Public Schools is reporting the highest first day attendance in four years! CCH had proposed that the CTA service involve widespread and early publicity casting the effort as “Catch A Ride to Your Future.” Though publicity was last minute and our suggested slogan was not adopted, the free first day rides mark an important step in removing one barrier faced by our young people in accessing school. We look forward to making this a tradition in Chicago just as the free transit rides on New Year’s Eve have become.
Chicago has the third largest school system in the nation with over 600 school sites. Among its almost 400,000 students –most of whom meet federal poverty guidelines– are more than 15,000 students without stable housing. A round trip transit ride (without the student pass) is $5.00.