Twice last school year, Philadelphia homeless students lost out on special education services because the city School District failed to appoint advocates to fight for their rights.
Now, the district must come up with a new system to make sure such “surrogate parents” are assigned promptly to homeless students eligible for special-education services and tracked. Also, the state will soon issue guidance to districts and charter schools across Pennsylvania reminding them of their legal obligation to do the same.
The changes come as a result of a complaint filed by the Education Law Center, a city-based nonprofit that advocates for students across the state. Paige Joki, the lawyer who filed the complaint, said the two students’ cases were indicative of a larger problem.
“We believe that these barriers are systemic,” said Joki, whose work centers on homeless students. “This is not just a School District of Philadelphia problem.”
Under federal law, school districts have 30 days to name surrogate parents to advocate and sign off on educational decisions for unaccompanied disabled students experiencing homelessness. These volunteers are often people who have a relationship with the children they represent.
In the case of the two Philadelphia students, whose names are being withheld to protect their privacy, no such advocates were assigned.
One of the students was pushed to graduate, forfeiting her future educational rights. The other was placed in a life-skills class that failed to meet her needs, Joki said.
Such students may run away or be forced out of homes, said Joki, who advocates for homeless youth in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties. They are disproportionately students of color, pregnant students, LGBT students, or students coming out of the foster care system.
“These students have often tried to self-advocate, but they don’t have the legal ability to assert their own rights,” said Joki.
A state investigation prompted by the Education Law Center’s complaint with the Department of Education revealed that in an entire school year, the district formally assigned just two surrogate parents for all children in foster care or experiencing homelessness.
That low number “suggests a failure of the SDP to identify children in need of [surrogate] parents,” the state found in response to the Law Center’s complaint.
Karyn Lynch, the district’s chief of student support services, disputed the notion that there was a problem larger than the failure to meet two students' needs. In most cases, Lynch said, building-level staff, such as principals, often find appropriate surrogates for homeless pupils who require special-education services, and the central office does not get involved.
“That does not mean that surrogates were not identified all across the district,” Lynch said.
“We serve 19,000 special education students,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that two of them had this experience.”
The state ordered the school system to immediately assign surrogate parents and provide compensatory education to the two students. It also required Philadelphia to devise a new system to make sure all unaccompanied homeless students with special-education needs are promptly given advocates.
It also said that it would re-issue guidance to each district and charter school in the commonwealth, emphasizing their legal responsibilities in this area and encouraging them to disaggregate the data around unaccompanied homeless students with special needs.
Statewide, there are more than 4,000 unaccompanied homeless students.
“The state’s action in this matter represents vital progress for unaccompanied youth with disabilities, who will now have a system that identifies and serves them,” Joki said in a statement. “As our clients’ cases illustrate, youth who are on their own risk being pushed to graduate or being deprived of services they desperately need to succeed in life.”