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Feds, Texas offer choices for students homeless after Harvey

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HOUSTON — Michael Evan Hilburn says he can’t wait to start kindergarten this week at a school about 20 miles from the Houston shelter where he and his father have been living since Harvey devastated the city.

The 5-year-old is a beneficiary of state and federal laws that seek to make it easier for homeless kids to go to school — a blessing, his father said, as they try to overcome the chaos of a catastrophic disaster that has disrupted life in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

“The sooner he’s in school, the sooner I can start work,” Michael Howard Hilburn said. “I want him to be happy, make lots of friends. He needs consistency.”

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Most of the schools in the Houston Independent School District, Texas’ largest district and the nation’s seventh-largest with 216,000 students, will open for class on Monday. In an average year, it has about 7,000 homeless students.

Officials tweeted this past week that they’re still working to identify all students who are still in shelters, which they estimated at about 7,000. It’s unknown how the district is managing those who are displaced but not in shelters. The district didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment on their efforts.

Tori Texada, 25, said she wanted to get her kids back to their neighborhood school even while they are living in the Houston shelter, but that she hadn’t reached Houston district officials.

The single-mother of five, including three who are school-aged, said she was unaware of any federal and state protections for displaced families, and didn’t know that there was a school liaison to help her navigate them.

“I don’t want them missing days of school,” Texada said. “If we have to transfer so we can be closer, I hope they don’t give me problems.”

Homeless for about two years, Hilburn is now tapping into the Texas option that allows his son to go to school in any district in the state.

He’s enrolling his son to Tiger Trail School in the Spring Branch Independent School District, about 20 miles northwest of the shelter, because he said he has two friends who can help with pick up. He said the school principal has called him to offer support, including transportation.

“I think that’s a good law, that we can choose,” said Hilburn, who had been living with a relative in west suburban Katy before Harvey hit. “In this situation, it’s a blessing.”

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