Student Well-Being Opinion

Helping Homeless Students Step Out of the Shadows

By Barbara Duffield — September 06, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For many children, the beginning of the school year is a time of anticipation to rejoin old friends, meet new teachers, and find new classes. But for the nation’s identified 1.3 million preschool and K-12 homeless children and youth who attend public schools, the return to school also means a reliable meal, shelter for at least six hours a day, a stable routine, and a chance for a better life.

This is a historic school year for homeless students, as new requirements for education under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act—which passed nearly 30 years ago and was reauthorized with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015—go into effect Oct. 1. The new requirements are designed to help schools better identify and support homeless students.

But to translate the promise of the law into meaningful changes, schools will need robust community partnerships; leadership from state and local education officials; and accurate measurements of progress that include not only academic performance for these students, but also how well schools are identifying homeless young people.

"Helping Homeless Students Step Out of the Shadows: ESSA requirements may help homeless youth," Commentary by Barbara Duffield. Photo by Getty.

I’ve worked with homeless children and youth for over 20 years—as a tutor for such children in Washington; at the National Coalition for the Homeless; and as the current director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Homeless students face many challenges. They move from place to place and never know when they might be forced to leave. They lack food, clothing, and health care, as well as a quiet place to do homework. They struggle with trauma and loss and, sometimes, abuse and neglect.

But perhaps the greatest barrier to the education of homeless students is their invisibility to the educators and leaders around them. Most homeless children and youth do not stay in readily accessible places like homeless shelters. In fact, less than 15 percent of the homeless children and youth enrolled by public schools nationally stay in shelters or transitional housing. As a result, most homeless students stay on couches and floors, or in motels, cars, and other hidden places.

At the same time, the school district personnel who are specifically designated under federal law to assist homeless students—school district homeless liaisons—often wear many hats and may not receive essential training on how to identify and support those students.

Until we improve the identification of homeless children and youth, we will not be able to provide the support necessary for school access and success."

A recent report about America’s homeless students, released in June by the GradNation campaign, found that over 90 percent of liaisons also have other official duties; in fact, 89 percent say they spend half their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons. Additionally, one-third of liaisons report they are the only person within their school district who receives training to help identify and intervene with homeless children and youth. As a consequence, too many homeless students go unseen and unserved.

The new requirements address these challenges by requiring that liaisons carry out their duties and participate in professional development. The U.S. Department of Education recently issued guidance for specific strategies to help districts implement these new requirements. The guidance includes suggestions for how to determine the amount of time liaisons should dedicate to these students and how to identify some of the most hidden homeless students, from preschool-age children to older youth, who may be homeless and possibly living without a parent or legal guardian.

The guidance directs administrators of local education agencies to review data indicating the prevalence and needs of homeless children and youth in each school district. Suggested identification methods include using a questionnaire to gather information about students registering for school in the district, providing ongoing professional development and training for school staff on signs of homelessness, and outreach to community agencies.

For the 2017-18 school year, when ESSA goes into full effect, all states will also be required to report on the academic achievement and graduation rates of homeless students. These reports will shine a spotlight on the impact of homelessness and create a baseline from which to assess state and national progress for helping these most vulnerable students.

Of course, it’s one thing for a law to spell out new responsibilities. It’s quite another to make sure that the words on paper transform systems and save lives. To that end, schools can’t be the only lifeline for homeless students.

Schools need to form diverse partnerships with housing programs, service agencies, faith-based organizations, and businesses. They need to engage leadership from governors, mayors, and other elected officials to raise the profile of student homelessness, recognize its urgency, and prioritize efforts to address it. Some school districts have formed local task forces to bring key stakeholderstogether, while others haven taken an active role in supporting state and local legislation. As the only universal safety net for homeless children and youth, school participation is essential in local, state, and federal plans to address homelessness.

How will we know if these efforts are successful? Initially, the numbers of homeless children and youth identified and reported by public schools should increase. Until we improve the identification of homeless children and youth, we will not be able to provide the support necessary for school access and success. Over the longer term, schools should see improvements in academic outcomes, high school graduation rates, post-secondary access and completion, and employment.

Finally, even as educators and policymakers work to implement new requirements to support homeless students, we must accept that the ultimate goal—healthy, productive, housed citizens—is a long-term endeavor. Only then can we start to see the beginning of the true end to student homelessness. If today’s homeless students receive the education and the supports they need, their children—the students of tomorrow—may not be homeless.

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2016 edition of Education Week as How ESSA May Help Homeless Students


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Seamless Integrations for Engagement in the Classroom
Learn how to seamlessly integrate new technologies into your classroom to support student engagement. 
Content provided by GoGuardian
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Be the Change: Strategies to Make Year-Round Hiring Happen
Learn how to leverage actionable insights to diversify your recruiting efforts and successfully deploy a year-round recruiting plan.
Content provided by Frontline
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Critical Ways Leaders Can Build a Culture of Belonging and Achievement
Explore innovative practices for using technology to build an environment of belonging and achievement for all staff and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Tom Brady's TB12 Method Is in Schools. Experts Have Doubts
Physical education experts have raised questions about the approach’s suitability for school-age children.
5 min read
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s new physical education curriculum is catching on in schools. Here, Eighth-grade students, Justine Snyder, bottom, and Macy Peterson use a sphere and foam roller at Pinellas Park Middle School on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, in Pinellas Park, Fla.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady has a new physical education curriculum that is catching on in schools, including in Pinellas County, Florida. Eighth-grade students, Justine Snyder, bottom, and Macy Peterson, use a sphere and foam roller—part of the Brady fitness regimen—at Pinellas Park Middle School in Pinellas Park, Fla.
Jefferee Woo/Tampa Bay Times via AP
Student Well-Being Opinion 'Do I Belong or Not?' How to Help Students Navigate Social Relationships
What do you say to students who are struggling to feel like they fit in—and what do you avoid?
Geoffrey L. Cohen
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Goodbye to COVID Vaccine, Testing Mandates. What That Means for Schools
The changes come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its COVID-19 guidance for schools.
3 min read
Doctor putting a band aid on woman's arm.
Student Well-Being NYC School Vaccination Study Shows Differences Based on Race and Community
Schools serving a majority of Asian students had the highest vaccination rates.
2 min read
Vaccine record.
Bill Oxford/iStock/Getty