College & Workforce Readiness

Homeless Students’ Struggles Come Into Sharper Focus Under ESSA

By Corey Mitchell — June 11, 2019 3 min read
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The U.S. high school graduation rate has risen to an all-time high, but schools are still struggling to help their most vulnerable students earn diplomas.

The “Building a Grad Nation” report, released Tuesday by Civic, Johns Hopkins University, America’s Promise Alliance, and the Alliance for Excellent Education, found that students with disabilities, English-language learners, and homeless children—all at less than 70 percent—are the student subgroups with the lowest graduation rates in the country.

The No Child Left Behind Act required states to disaggregate student-achievement data and graduation rates for subgroups, which led schools to focus on improving education for students with disabilities and English-language learners.

The mandates didn’t apply to homeless students though.

Until the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, states were not required to report graduation rates or break out test performance for homeless students. That means there was there was no tool to gauge the graduation rates of these students or hold schools and states accountable.

With the change in the federal education law, a national and state-level picture of the academic progress, and struggles, of homeless students is just coming into focus. The results are disconcerting.

According to data from the National Center for Homeless Education, the national graduation rate for homeless students is 64 percent, a full 20 percentage points lower than the average graduation rate for all students The agency calculated the rate after 44 states voluntarily shared their data with the U.S. Department of Education this year. Data from all 50 states should be available next year.

A similar examination of homeless student graduation rates in 26 states by the Education Leads Home campaign, found that nine states have homeless graduation rates below 60 percent; Minnesota had the lowest rate at 45 percent.

If the United States wants to continue to bolster its national graduation rate, it must push harder to address the needs of all students, said John B. King Jr., the president and CEO of the Education Trust and former U.S. education secretary.

“We have to confront these realities,” King said. “We can’t get to our goal without supporting our most vulnerable students.”

‘Going From Place to Place’

A panel of homeless advocates gathered in Washington, D.C., Tuesday to discuss those realities, describe the obstacles homeless students face on the road to graduation, and explore what educators can do to support them. King moderated the discussion.

The participants agreed the national count of nearly 1.4 million homeless students in K-12 schools is probably an undercount because of the fear and stigma associated with being identified as homeless. That’s an increase of more than 100,000 students from 2016, making 2017 an all-time high since the group began tracking in 2007, as my colleague Sarah D. Sparks wrote earlier this year.

Elaine Williams was once a homeless high school student. In her work with SchoolHouse Connection, Williams has found that educators assume that homeless students are only living on the streets, in cars or shelters. But the federal definition, as spelled out in the McKinney-Vento Act, includes children from families who are temporarily sharing homes with friends or relatives.

“I was going from place to place every night and wondering where my next meal would come from,” Williams, who is now a high school and college graduate, said during the panel discussion.

Federal law establishes that students who are designated as homeless have the option of continuing to attend their current school or enrolling in the school closest to where they are currently residing.

Beyond those mandates, schools must ensure that trusted adults are connecting with students and families to address issues that manifest off campus, said Barbara Duffield, the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection.

With so much instability in the lives of homeless students, “it’s so vital to have someone consistent in your life,” Duffield said.

In Fairfax County, Va., the school system has staff who are tasked with connecting with homeless high school seniors to help them across the finish line to graduation, said Kathi Sheffel, the district’s homeless liaison.

“They’re individual kids with individual stories and individual needs,” Sheffel during the panel.

Here’s a look at the full Building a Grad Nation 2019 report.

Related Reading

Homeless Students Less Likely to Graduate Than Other Low-Income Children

Schools Finding Record Numbers of Homeless Students

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.