On the morning of the first day of school, Sheila Mitchell took her 7-year-old son by Metrobus on an almost hour-long ride from a D.C. shelter for homeless families to Wheatley Elementary School in his old neighborhood of Trinidad.
By the time Mitchell returned to the shelter on Rhode Island Avenue NW, Darlene Davis was ready to take her daughter, Laqueatta, to Garrison Elementary School, a 15-minute walk from the shelter. The school at 12th and S streets NW is the third in three years for Laqueatta.
The decisions made by the two women illustrate a problem facing a homeless family with a school-age child: Should they move the son or daughter from a familiar school to a closer one to cut down transportation costs or keep the child at his most recent school and provide some stability in an otherwise unstable environment?
The D.C. school system for the first time has a fully funded branch established specifically to aid homeless families in making those decisions and to remove barriers to their children's public education.
Beverly Wallace, director of the school system's Homeless Children and Youth Technical Assistance Branch, said yesterday that "very minimal" obstacles remain for homeless students.
But some advocacy groups for the homeless and children are questioning just how well District schools, and those in other jurisdictions across the country, are fulfilling their role in helping the homeless.
At a news conference yesterday in front of a family shelter in the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW, they said the single largest problem in the District is lack of free transportation for homeless children to schools.
More than a dozen school-age children walked out of the shelter during the news conference, which began about 11 a.m.
"Look around at these kids," said Mitchell, who will spend $85 a month for transportation for her son to go to the school in his former neighborhood. "They shouldn't be here. They should be in school."
The school system said there are 444 homeless school-age children in the city. Advocates said the number is higher, about 560.
Federal law requires school districts to allow families to choose whether to change schools if they become homeless and have to move to a shelter served by a different school. An amendment to the law, introduced by Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.), would provide federal funding for transportation and other services for homeless students.
"Without transportation, that right to access is meaningless," said Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Only students with special needs get transportation provided by the school system. Other students can buy discounted bus tokens for 25 cents each.
Darlene Davis said that she paid full fares at the end of the last school year when she took her daughter by bus from Northwest to her old school, Langdon, at 20th and Franklin streets NE.
"They don't tell you about the programs," Davis said.
A report released yesterday by the Law Center was highly critical of the District's efforts to help homeless school-age children.
It recommended that the tokens be distributed by school counselors to homeless children. The discount tokens can be bought at most banks and at the Metro Center subway station.
The report also called on the school system to provide free monthly passes for public transportation for homeless students or to provide school bus transportation from shelters to schools.
Wallace said her office and the school administration have been discussing the issue of transportation for homeless children but have not reached any decisions.
Wallace said her office provided more than 400 back-to-school packets for homeless children this year. They included a dictionary, pens and pencils, scissors, a book bag and a notebook. The school system has established a data base to keep track of homeless students and has placed decals in shelters with her office's phone number for parents who have any problems.
But the report pointed out that two pamphlets Wallace's office has prepared -- one to help school administrators meet the special needs of homeless children, the other to aid homeless families in enrolling their children in school -- won't be available until the first month of school is over.