Local districts stress awareness of assistance for homeless, migrant students

Apr. 3—ANDERSON — In addition to hindering the educational progress of many students, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated efforts by school administrators across Madison County to document the number of homeless students enrolling.

"We weren't identifying anybody," said Bethany Cmar, director of special services at Anderson Community Schools. "It's taken us a little while to get back up to speed and make sure that we're making known the services we offer."

ACS has seen a largely stable population of homeless students in recent years. According to Cmar, the district counted 145 such students in the pandemic-marred 2019-20 academic year. That number rose to 173 in 2022-23 and has fallen to 153 this year, she said.

Following requirements set forth in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act, a federal law created to support enrolling and educating homeless students in the nation's public schools, ACS partners with a local nonprofit agency — Alternatives, Inc. — to plan and procure funding for its programming for students in all grades.

Cmar said Alternatives applies for state grant funding, which covers most of their programming costs.

"I think our biggest expense would be transportation," Cmar said. "If we have students move to Muncie from here, we have to provide that transportation for them to be able to remain in school here."

Elsewhere, other districts serving more sparsely populated areas have been confronted with challenges in educating students across ethnic and language barriers. The Indiana Migrant Education Program, created in the 1960s to aid schools in their efforts to educate children of migrant farm workers, has provided tutoring, supplies and support services to supplement school English learning programs.

The program provided summer schooling in the Alexandria Community School Corp. for seven years until the current academic year and, prior to that, served students in the Elwood area for nearly a decade. It still offers after-school tutoring services to migrant students, which officials said addresses an important gap among those still learning English.

"Certainly, there are other funding sources that support English language learners, but even those funds don't come close to those needs," said Jesse Shawver, a social studies teacher at Alexandria-Monroe High School who serves as a regional program administrator for the Indiana Migrant Education Program.

"It can be very frustrating for the students to be (learning) in a language they don't know, but it can also be very frustrating for staff," he added.

Shawver said several unique factors — ranging from inadequate school supplies to a lack of access to medical care — contribute to the barriers faced by students who are either homeless, migrants or both.

"There are so many more pressures at home that education can sometimes be back-burnered," he said. "I've heard stories about parents who, if it rains, they don't think school opens. If you don't have parent-outreach staff for rural areas, or somebody to communicate to them how the U.S. education system works, it can be a strain as well."

Cmar said a key to making her district's offerings for homeless and migrant students more effective is raising awareness of what is already in place.

"The school has a responsibility to make sure parents are aware of McKinney-Vento," she said. "We make sure we do our due diligence. If we have parents who come in (for registration) that we believe might be homeless, we make sure that we make those known."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.