East Side High school’s 1966 graduating class returned some 50 years later as honorary guests at the current graduation in Cleveland, Miss., on May 19, 2016. The school district remains under pressure to integrate this predominantly black school with Cleveland High School which has a white and black mixture of students. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

While the path from kindergarten through college can be tough for anyone, two government reports released this month outline the particular difficulties facing poor black and Hispanic students, as well as the higher education hurdles confronting homeless and foster youth.

One Government Accountability Office (GAO) study shows increasing isolation of poor students of color in K-12 education. And, their schools have fewer resources.

Another GAO report says homeless and foster youth graduate from college at a sharply lower rate than other students. The two groups also have a difficult time navigating bureaucratic rules that make it harder for them to secure financial aid for college.

First the K-12 picture.

More than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregated schools, racial and income isolation is increasing, according to GAO.

“Over time, there has been a large increase in schools that are the most isolated by poverty and race,” says its report on disparities and racial discrimination in K-12 schooling.

During the 2000-2001 academic year, schools classified as high-poverty black or Hispanic were 9 percent of all public schools. By the 2013-2014 school year, that had jumped to 16 percent. These are schools where at least 75 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and at least three-quarters of the study body are black or Hispanic. The number of students in these schools doubled to 8.4 million.

For poorer students, the growth in racially separate facilities was dramatic.

“Specifically, according to our analysis of [Department of] Education’s data,” GAO said “the number of schools where 90 to 100 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 90 to 100 percent of the students were Black or Hispanic grew by 143 percent from school years 2000-01 to 2013-14.”

GAO also found “multiple disparities, including access to academic courses,” fewer resources and more disciplinary actions in those schools.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said GAO’s work “confirms what has long been feared and proves that current barriers against educational equality are eerily similar to those fought during the civil rights movement.” Conyers requested the report along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and former Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

“There simply can be no excuse for allowing educational apartheid in the 21st century,” Conyers added. “Congress and the federal government, as well as state and local agencies, must ensure all children receive access to equal education at all publicly funded schools.”

Scott agreed, saying: “Sixty-two years later, here we are in 2016 facing an overwhelming failure to fulfil the promise of Brown in realizing equality in educational opportunity for all students…The GAO report confirms that our nation’s schools are, in fact, largely segregated by race and class. What’s more troubling, is that segregation in public K12 schools isn’t getting better; it’s getting worse, and getting worse quickly, with more than 20 million students of color now attending racially and socioeconomically isolated public schools. This report is a national call to action.”

Hispanic students are “triply segregated,” according to the report, by race, income and language.

Meanwhile, if poor black and Hispanic students overcome all the obstacles and graduate from high school, they likely will face additional problems if they are homeless or in foster care.

“Homeless and foster youth experience challenges, such as weak academic foundations, limited family support, and lack of awareness of available financial resources, making it harder for them to pursue college,” according to GAO’s research.

Bureaucratic hassles are another problem.

For example, telling students applying for financial aid “to justify why they are homeless” can discourage them, GAO said.  Children might not want to say they ran away from home because of sexual abuse. It also might be difficult for homeless youth to provide the extensive documentation financial aid administrators often request.

“Asking personal and intrusive questions often causes unaccompanied homeless students to walk away before completing the financial aid process, according to officials from higher education organizations,” the report said.

GAO offered a series of recommendations to the departments of Education and Health and Human Services that are designed to assist homeless and foster youth seeking college financial aid. One suggestion was to develop webpages specifically designed for homeless and foster youth that could make it easier for them to find information and resources tailored to their situations.

“Many unaccompanied youth have experienced severe trauma, including abuse and neglect and family dysfunction…” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), who requested the GAO study, said in a letter sent Tuesday to the Education Department.  “It is critical that the Department of Education streamlines the path for unaccompanied homeless youth to receive the financial support they need to attend and succeed in higher education.”

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