For Children Of Homeless, A New Right

Posted: March 15, 1990

Crystal Louk and her brother, Joseph Vingara, sat in a Maple Shade motel room for 2 1/2 weeks, mostly staring at television.

They weren't sick, or suspended, or expelled.

They were homeless.

"The school itself put them out," their mother, Gloria Vingara, said about their original school in Mount Holly. "They called me at my job and said the kids have to go to school where I'm living at. . . . I did transfer them to Maple Shade, but they didn't know where to put Joseph. He needs special classes, and the school system didn't have classes for that."

But now, a new state law will spare homeless children like Crystal, 12, and Joseph, 7, such weeks in limbo. After July, when the law takes effect, homeless children will not have to change schools as they move from home to a shelter to a motel to a new home. Their parents will have more say in whether their children go to their original school or to a school nearer their temporary lodging.

Under the old regulations, all students had to go to school in the town where they lived, even if they were living there only temporarily. The new law, which brings the state into compliance with federal law, requires the students' original district to decide where they should attend, based on what is best for the student. The district must consult with the parents before making this decision.

If the child goes to a new district, the original district must pay the tuition for as long as the student is homeless.

"Many times a homeless family is placed in a different town close by where they had lived," said Jay Doolan, manager of New Jersey's Office of Education for Homeless Children and Youth. "The children want to attend the same school with the same children, and this law would allow that. It provides some stability for children in terms of education when the family is in crisis."

Since 1987, when the federal law passed, the state Education Department has only been able to advise districts to follow the federal act's provisions, which require that students be sent to the school that best meets their needs. After 1990, with its own law, the state will be able to enforce that provision.

"We've been pretty successful in getting schools to cooperate," Doolan said. "A majority are willing to accept the children." He said his office has resolved more than 200 placements and was "successful in 98 percent of the cases."

That percentage can mean peace of mind for students.

The Rev. Kent Pipes, an advocate for the homeless in Mount Holly, said it can be just as hard for children to be in a new school as it is for them to be homeless.

"Kids can adapt to a new bed," he said, "but if they're sitting in a strange classroom and don't know the faces and don't know where the bathroom is and things like that, it is traumatic. Then they might have to face it again when they find permanent housing in three to five months. Some of these kids could change schools three times a year. That's going to knock the kid for a loop educationally."

Crystal and Joseph were luckier. They didn't have to switch to Maple Shade schools, because advocates for the homeless and state officials intervened in their case. They returned to the Mount Holly schools. But it still bothered them that they were not welcome there.

"I was mad, because I couldn't go back," said Crystal, who said she wants to be a veterinarian or lawyer when she grows up. "It was boring and I wanted to go to school, but I couldn't."

She liked her school and didn't want to leave. "All my friends are there," she said. "It's a good school."

Joseph said he likes school, and math in particular. "I like the work there," he said.

He didn't want to change schools, he said, " 'cause I like doing lots of work."

Next year, Crystal and Joseph will transfer to the Moorestown district, where Vingara has found an apartment. Meanwhile, Crystal brought home a certificate naming her Student of the Month for February, for her B average, her book reports and her behavior in her sixth-grade class.

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