Student Well-Being

Schools Finding Record Numbers of Homeless Students, Study Says

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 12, 2019 5 min read
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States have never found so many homeless students in public schools before. The next challenge will be finding ways to keep those students in school long enough to earn a diploma.

Nearly 1.36 million children—more than all the students in New York City—went to school in 2017 without knowing where they would sleep at night, finds a new report by the national campaign Education Leads Home, which looked at new national data as well as graduation rates for homeless students in 26 states. That’s a jump of more than 100,000 students from 2016, making 2017 an all-time high since the group began tracking in 2007.

“Homelessness is not just not having housing. ... It goes above and beyond poverty,” said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, which co-wrote the report with three other groups, the America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. “There’s so much that goes into homelessness, in terms of trauma ... these students have multiple risk factors.”

The report found that nationwide, only 64 percent of homeless students earn a high school diploma, and there is a wide variation from state to state in what percentage of homeless students complete a high school diploma. That’s nearly 20 percentage points lower than the average graduation rate for all students, and nearly 14 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for students who are living in poverty but have stable housing.

This baseline data may not tell the whole story, Duffield warned, as states that have committed to identifying more homeless students overall, such as Oregon, show lower than average graduation rates.

Like many districts, Rutherford County public schools outside Nashville have seen a steady rise in homeless students, according to Kim Snell, the district’s homeless-program coordinator. Some 1,250 of the district’s 46,000 students are homeless, up from fewer than 800 in 2008.

But unlike in many districts, homeless students in Rutherford don’t lag their peers in earning a diploma. In fact, last year they slightly outperformed the district’s already-high 95.3 percent overall graduation rate.

The district provides a graduation coach in every high school, dedicated to monitoring vulnerable students from 9th grade on. And its Academic Time Leads to Achieving Students, or ATLAS, program provides two homeless-student advocates who work with liaisons at each school. The advocates help identify students’ challenges, from figuring out how to transfer credit from a high school career pathway program to arranging transportation to helping provide clean clothes and a safe place to do homework.

“It’s the relationships, just having that extra layer of support for those kids,” Snell said. The homeless advocates “are not providing direct instruction, but they might be talking to the teacher about the fact that this child doesn’t have access to the internet at home or doesn’t have a way to print anything when they’re not at school. So let’s give him the time at school that he needs to do whatever it is he needs to do.”

Addressing these needs can make a big difference in a homeless student’s potential to earn a diploma, said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan. After studying homeless students in both Michigan and New York, she found that contrary to common wisdom, 9 out of 10 homeless students graduated high school if they did not transfer schools repeatedly and attended school regularly.

“What that says to me is that there are these critical points of intervention where schools could have a really meaningful difference in whether homeless students graduate,” Erb-Downward said.

More Students on Their Own

Nationwide, the rise in homeless students has not come primarily through better identification of homeless students, Duffield said.

Rather, causes seem to vary widely from community to community, from rapidly rising housing costs in some communities to fallout from the opioid and methamphetamine epidemics in others. The number of homeless students living on their own has risen particularly sharply, from about 95,000 in 2014-15 to more than 118,000 in 2016-17. (Unaccompanied immigrant children are not counted in federal homeless figures for “unaccompanied minors,” because they are immediately taken into custody, Duffield noted.)

“Homeless” summons an image of children in shelters, but more than 3 in 4 homeless students live doubled up with other families. The report also found a smaller portion of homeless students living in shelters than in 2014, and a larger portion living in hotels, campgrounds, and abandoned buildings. These students can be difficult for schools to identify.

“What we’d like to see more of in schools is a more trauma-informed approach,” said Annie Pennucci of Building Changes, a nonprofit group for homeless students in Washington state. “Being late or absent, falling asleep in school, all can be symptoms of homelessness, not just poor behavior.”

In Rutherford County, Snell found a way to boost identification and support at the same time. The district pays for homeless students to participate in the area Boys and Girls Club summer camps, which run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. when school is not in session. The district doesn’t pay for after-school care, but parents who get forms from the district showing their child participates in the homeless-education program often have after-school fees waived by the community group.

“So many, many doubled-up children are in unsafe situations if they aren’t in school,” Snell said. “This gives them a safe place to go, where they get to eat, be like every other kid—and it allows their parents to work.”

Identification is likely to continue to improve. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to report the test performance and graduation rates of homeless students for the first time beginning with data from the 2017-18 school year, and graduation rates for homeless students in all states are expected to be released in 2020.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Schools Finding Record Numbers of Homeless Students, Study Says


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