School & District Management

Homeless Students With Disabilities, Language Needs Growing, New Data Show

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 14, 2016 2 min read
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After years of deepening child poverty, new federal data show a sharp rise in the number of homeless students who also have disabilities or limited English proficiency. But growth in both the number and needs of America’s roughly 1.3 million homeless students means federal support for them is spread thin.

From 2012 to 2015, the number of homeless students grew 3.5 percent, according to the report by the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. More than 1 in 4 school districts now receives federal money to support education services for homeless students, who may be living in shelters or hotels, on the street, or doubled up with other family or friends.

Districts may be focusing more effort on finding and identifying these students than in years past. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires significantly more from districts in identifying and serving both K-12 and preschool-aged homeless students. Beginning next school year, districts must report on homeless students’ academic achievement and high school graduation rates as a separate student group.

Yet on average, districts get only about $50 per child in federal McKinney-Vento grants to support homeless students—who are statistically most likely to miss school frequently, come to school hungry or without adequate clothing, and be at risk of falling behind both academically and in social development.

In 2014-15, less than a quarter of homeless students in elementary and middle school and less than a third of homeless students in high school were deemed proficient in math on state tests. They fared slightly better in language arts. On average, less than 30 percent of homeless students in elementary or middle school and little more than 40 percent of those in high school read proficiently. For both subjects, homeless students fared worse in 2015 than they did in 2012.

Needs Beyond a Permanent Home

While the overall growth in homeless students has slowed a little, the percentage of homeless students with other needs is growing. For example, the percentage of homeless students with disabilities in preschool, primary and secondary grades has jumped 13 percent in the last three years. In some states, like Minnesota and Pennsylvania, more than 20 percent of homeless students now qualify for special education:

English-language learners are also a growing part of the homeless sudent population, with 4 percent more than in 2012. Homeless ELLs are most concentrated in the Southwest:

Moreover, states saw more than a 20 percent increase in the number of homeless children who are living on their own; more than 95,000 students now have neither a permanent home nor a parent or guardian.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.