Local educational agencies must undertake steps to revise practices and/or policies that may act as barriers to the identification, enrollment, attendance, or success of students experiencing homelessness, the New Jersey Department of Education noted in a recent advisory.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires the state and LEAs to remove barriers to school enrollment for children and youths experiencing homelessness.

A child or youth may be eligible for protections and supports if they meet the act’s definition of homelessness, which describes homeless children and youths as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

This includes children and youth who share housing with others due to the loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason. An unaccompanied youth is a student who is not in the physical custody of their parent or legal guardian. This includes young people who have run away from home, have been kicked out of their homes, or have been abandoned by parents. There is no age limit for unaccompanied youth, but these students are most often in their teens.

Two conditions must be present for a child or youth to be considered an unaccompanied youth under the act: 1) The child’s or youth’s living arrangement meets the act’s definition of homeless; and 2) The child or youth is not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.

The act requires schools to immediately enroll children experiencing homelessness, including unaccompanied children and youths who are awaiting immigration proceedings while residing in local communities with a family member, or other appropriate adult sponsor.

Though proof of residency affidavits may be intended to ensure that only eligible students are able to enroll in an LEA, the use of such forms as a requirement for enrollment, or continued enrollment, constitutes an educational barrier for students who do not reside in permanent living situations. The right to enroll immediately in school, even without documents normally required for enrollment, is one of the core protections of the act. Additionally, proof of guardianship is not necessary to immediately enroll an unaccompanied child or youth.

If an LEA disputes a claim of homelessness, it must continue the student’s enrollment for the duration of the dispute resolution process, as described at N.J.A.C. 6A:17-2.7. The requirement for immediate enrollment also applies to unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness who lack proof of guardianship.

It is important to note that if a student becomes homeless at any time during the year, the NJDOE’s N.J. Standards Measurement and Resource for Teaching system data fields must be completed.

Get more information on how to record these students into the N.J. SMART system and additional information in the full advisory.

If you have questions or need further clarification, visit the NJDOE’s McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth webpage or contact the NJDOE via email.