School officials say they're doing the best they can to cover the additional costs mandated by the federal law. CPS allocated $7.7 million -- all but $800,000 from local funds -- for its Students in Temporary Living Situations Program this year, a 20 percent increase from last. It hired an additional coordinator to help students connect with services and to develop an STLS training program for school officials. The district also is doing more developmental screenings at shelters.
"We're doing everything in our power with the resources that we have to make sure we're meeting the needs of the homeless youth," said Molly Burke, director of the STLS program.
While homeless advocates praise such efforts, many doubt they're enough. Rene Heybach, director of the Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the lack of government support could cause districts to fall short of their responsibilities. She contends that some already have.
An investigation this summer found that a school district in suburban Cook County failed to fully implement the McKinney-Vento law, according to internal documents the Tribune obtained from the state board. Because the investigation was part of a legal dispute over a student's eligibility for homeless services, the board cited student privacy laws for redacting the name of the district.
As the ombudsman for the McKinney-Vento law in the region, Michael Pietrzak conducted the investigation. In his report, he wrote that the district's efforts to provide outreach to homeless families were inadequate. That, he said, was not unusual. And if the trend continues -- a rising homeless population combined with static funding -- he predicts more districts will follow suit.
"Most people don't want to intentionally disregard this," Pietrzak said. But without more money, he added, schools "won't have the time or the resources to implement the law as it's intended in its entirety."
Even with additional support from districts, homeless students face many risks. Some live in shelters or motels; others double up with friends or relatives. They fall behind in school while struggling to patch together some semblance of a normal life.
Homeless children are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as children who are not homeless, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. They also have three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems.
Pat Rivera, founder of an after-school tutoring program for homeless students in Chicago, said most are the victims of an economy still reeling from the recession and persistent mortgage crisis. School officials added that growing awareness of their obligations under the federal law contributed to the rising numbers.
Before retiring from her job as STLS director two years ago, Rivera launched Chicago Hopes in 2006. The program offered tutoring at 27 shelters during the 2009-10 school year, when state money for homeless education was still available. This fall it operates at three.
Chicago Hopes wasn't the only program that benefited from the brief funding boost. The state's allocation of $3 million in 2009 went to 36 school districts across Illinois, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. They used that money to help cover the costs of transportation, counseling and other academic services for homeless students.
As districts continue to tighten their budgets, Heybach warns that the consequences could be severe for homeless education programs and the students who need them -- especially at places like Pope Elementary.
"Schools that have high concentrations of poverty lack services to begin with," she said. "This is just another thing they're going to lack."
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