Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Helping Homeless Students Step Out of the Shadows

By Barbara Duffield — September 06, 2016 5 min read

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

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