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Stripping the stigma from student homelessness

Jessica Anderson's report on the rising number of homeless students in Maryland highlights a problem that has remained off the radar of many policymakers, school staff and the public ("State's student homeless population doubles," Jan. 22).

As advocates, we especially appreciate the report's attention to students who double up with relatives or friends as a result of eviction, foreclosure or domestic violence. Over three quarters of Maryland's homeless students are doubled up or "couch surfing" and, as Ms. Anderson notes, they endure the hardship and instability that comes from never knowing when their host's charity will run out.

Because they are not congregated in an easily identifiable location, like a shelter or transitional facility, and may not even think of themselves as "homeless," doubled-up students often go unnoticed and therefore unserved by schools and school districts.

School districts around the state and the nation are implementing creative strategies to better identify, enroll, and support homeless students. They are investing in strategic outreach through shelters, family-serving agencies, libraries, soup kitchens and even laundromats. They have hired dedicated staff and appointed liaisons at schools to coordinate services for homeless students.

They are training enrollment staff, teachers, school bus drivers and others how to ask students and parents the right questions about their circumstances and how to streamline enrollment, records transfers and transportation.

Staff in these districts are improving homeless students' access to extra tutoring, academic support, and waivers of fees and other requirements so that they can participate in extracurricular activities, gifted and talented programs, and sports.

Not only are such reforms necessary to usher these school districts into compliance with federal law, they also better the education achievement of these vulnerable students. Both Prince George's Countyand Baltimore County schools have seen substantial improvements in homeless students' standardized test scores and graduation rates relative to the general student population. There is every reason to believe that the success in these districts is achievable throughout Maryland.

We applaud the courage of the homeless parents and children who shared their stories with The Sun's readers. We know that homeless families sometimes feel shame and that school officials often struggle to avoid stigmatizing children who are labeled "homeless."

There is no need to avoid the word. We join with these families in stripping the stigma from homelessness. Let us instead treat all homeless people with the respect they deserve.

Zafar Shah, Monisha Cherayil and Debra Gardner

The writers are staff members at the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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