Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

A Wake-Up Call on Student Homelessness

The critical link between homelessness and graduation rates
By John B. King Jr. & John M. Bridgeland — August 27, 2019 4 min read
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Across America, there are more than 1.3 million students from preschool through 12th grade who experience homelessness. And so often, these children are hidden in plain sight. Fearing stigma if they self-identify, homeless students remain under the radar without the supports they desperately need from their schools, which offer stability and a path out of poverty and homelessness.

For years, schools, states, and our nation have reported graduation rates by different subgroups, including by race, ethnicity, income, special needs, and English-language status, enabling a targeted approach to help those groups. But we’ve known almost nothing about the achievement and graduation rates of homeless students. Until now.

For the first time under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states recently released data—as part of a new annual update requirement on high school dropouts—including information on graduation rates for students who have experienced homelessness. Twenty states have graduation rates below 70 percent and nine of them graduate fewer than 6 in 10 homeless students. A National Center for Homeless Education analysis found that the national average graduation rate for homeless students was just 64 percent, compared with nearly 78 percent for low-income students, and more than 84 percent for students overall.

The list of challenges facing states and school districts seeking to take on homelessness is long."

Homeless students have among the lowest graduation rates in the nation. Clearly, ensuring we better serve students experiencing homelessness is a national challenge and should be a national priority—for schools, districts, states, and policymakers.

Fifteen years ago, researchers and the media began to seriously confront the silent epidemic of high school dropouts by listening to the perspectives of dropouts and locating the crisis in the 15 percent of schools where 50 percent of nongraduates were found. Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise, Civic, and Johns Hopkins University launched a nationwide campaign that included a 90 percent high school graduation rate goal by the class of 2020, an evidence-based plan to meet it, and a public-private partnership that has seen graduation rates rise from 71 percent in 2001 to 84 percent in 2017.

Homeless students in particular deserve a similarly equitable and audacious target. This is the charge of Education Leads Home. This national campaign, co-led by America’s Promise Alliance, Civic, EducationCounsel, SchoolHouse Connection, and The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, seeks to improve educational and life outcomes for homeless students.

This year, the campaign’s State Partnerships Project brought together governors’ offices, educators, and community organizations in six states—California, Hawaii, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. This project is designed to drive measurable progress on early-childhood education, high school graduation, and college completion. With support from Education Leads Home, these six states will become innovative and collaborative learning labs of best practices from birth through postsecondary education. By working through the tough obstacles, these states can become models for other states.

The list of challenges facing states and school districts seeking to take on homelessness is long.

Recent research indicates that public schools identify only slightly more than half of the high school students who are experiencing homelessness. That means that hundreds of thousands of students experiencing homelessness are not receiving services they need to succeed in school and life to which they are entitled under federal law. Districts need to train adults in schools to recognize the signs of homelessness and learn how to talk to parents and students about it.

School districts also struggle with funding and staffing. A recent state auditor’s report for Washington—a state with dedicated funding and strong record for supporting homeless students—noted that its school districts had, on average, less than one-half of a full-time equivalent for the homeless liaison position, translating into less than 20 minutes per month with each of the state’s more than 40,000 homeless students.

What’s more, homeless youths report their inability to show proof of residency as a significant barrier to school admission, even though federal law requires schools to enroll them immediately.

Averages, anecdotes, and survey data don’t paint the full picture. In Washington state, for example, school districts that used state funding to hire navigators for homeless students or provided academic coaches saw fast gains. They graduated homeless seniors at rates that were higher than the state averages.

The Education Trust-New York, a recent partner of the Education Leads Home campaign, has identified levers for supporting students experiencing homelessness, which are targeted at New York State—where homeless students are half as likely as their peers to meet state academic standards. ESSA requires states to separately report achievement and graduation rates for homeless students and provide equal access to early-childhood education, transportation, and other supports.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Dropping out of high school is the leading risk factor for homelessness. In fact, a lack of a diploma or GED makes young adults four-and-a-half times more likely to experience homelessness. Now that we know that students experiencing homelessness have graduation rates, on average, 20 percentage points lower than their housed peers, these disparities should be a wake-up call for addressing our homeless student challenge in America.

A version of this article appeared in the August 28, 2019 edition of Education Week as America’s Invisible Homeless Students

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