Under federal law, school districts must provide fee waivers, free lunches and any other assistance homeless students might need to attend school. Districts must also immediately enroll homeless students and make sure they know they can enroll in their original school.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act of 1987 became part of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Illinois has its own law, the Education for Homeless Children Act of 1994, which includes specific procedures for resolving any disputes that arise.

In 1992 the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless filed a lawsuit against Chicago Public Schools stemming from provisions in the federal and state law. The suit was settled in 1997 with a consent decree governing how CPS will provide services to homeless students. The coalition went back to court in 1999 alleging the district was not complying with the decree; that case was settled in 2000.

According to Rene Heybach, attorney for the Chicago Coalition, the decree requires the district to:

Provide transportation for homeless students to their schools of origin. Busing is provided for students in 6th grade and younger; older students receive CTA fare cards.

Ensure that students receive appropriate fee waivers;

Provide tutoring for those in need. Rivera says her office’s tutoring program currently serves about 300 students at 13 schools.

Train the homeless liaisons and clerks at schools, as well as principals, to serve homeless students.

Inform families of the services available to them and of their right to dispute.

Although the consent decree does not specifically require it, Pat Rivera, manager of CPS’ Homeless Education Program, says the system also refers families to public aid programs if needed; offers parent education in shelters; and works to find donations of books, school supplies and clothing.

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