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A Blueprint for Keeping Homeless Kids in School

Across the country, states and districts are hatching new ways to implement federal provisions coming into effect this fall.

Andrea Comas/Reuters

Across the United States, student homelessness is a problem that is difficult to see.

In speaking with homeless youth throughout the country, Erin Ingram, one of the authors on the Civic Enterprises report, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America’s Public Schools,” heard the same reasons that children hesitate to admit to school authorities that they don’t have a stable place to sleep: They’re afraid of ridicule, or of being taken from their families and put into foster care. “These are kids that want to fly under the radar,” Ingram says.

Yet the population is growing. The number of homeless students has doubled to 1.3 million over the past decade, according to the Civic Enterprises report. This is likely an undercount. Compounding the invisibility of the homeless student population is the fact that prior to this year, policies around identifying and educating homeless students have been undermanaged and inconsistently applied.   

Federal law has required that school districts take measures to ensure the education of homeless students since the passage of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987. However, guidance on how they should do so was vague, says Barbara Duffield, the director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY). Regardless of a school district’s size, a single staffer is tasked with identifying and assisting homeless students. Training for these local liaisons across states and districts was neither uniform nor required; as a result, Duffield says the efficacy of the McKinney-Vento requirements across states and districts varied widely.

On October 1, a new set of provisions passed as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) will come into effect to clarify and enforce stronger practices around identifying and educating homeless students across the country. These new provisions increase funding for the McKinney-Vento program from $70 million to $85 million. As CityLab has previously covered, ESSA also codifies new training requirements and duties for local liaisons, and mandates, for the first time, that districts ensure liaisons have the bandwidth to carry out their duties, which include enrolling students in school and referring them to outside agencies for health care and housing services. Beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, ESSA will also require that all states disaggregate and report the graduation rates of homeless students, creating a measurable system of accountability for schools to address the particular needs of this population.

While advocates like Duffield are optimistic about the direction the new ESSA requirements will offer, the success of new provisions will depend on how they’re implemented. “Federal laws alone are not a panacea,” the Civic Enterprises report notes. While states and districts work to come into compliance with the ESSA requirements over the next several years, they must also implement innovative solutions to “double down on this issue,” the report adds. A handful of states are already in the process of doing so.

(Mike Derer/AP)

A collaborative training model in Michigan

Up until this year, “every state has just been trying to figure it out on their own,”says Pam Kies-Lowe, the McKinney-Vento state coordinator for Michigan. There was no mandate that liaisons attend trainings offered by McKinney-Vento state coordinators; while they were encouraged to do so, this was the first year it was required under ESSA.

For Kies-Low, that inconsistency was a problem. So around two years ago—before ESSA was signed into law—Kies-Lowe and the Michigan Department of Education partnered with the tech platform Kickstand to develop an online training course to certify local homeless liaisons and reduce the problem of uneven training. When ESSA introduced a regulated training requirement for liaisons and school officials, Kies-Lowe and the team folded the law’s new requirements into the course. “It fell together at a perfect time,” Kies-Lowe says.

Michigan rolled out the first set of training modules to 250 districts last week for testing; the full program will launch after October 1. Kies-Lowe says that Michigan has received interest in the online course from other states, and is working to apply recommendations from fellow state coordinators. “This kind of work is really all about collaboration,” she says, adding that she hopes the platform will evolve into a national resource. Each of the training modules in Michigan’s course, Kies-Lowe adds, are adjustable by state. “We encourage people to steal from us,” she says. The standardized training, Kies-Lowe says, “provides a level of awareness across the state that hasn’t been there before.”

A housing-based approach in Washington

On the other side of the country, a handful of organizations in Washington State are helping homeless students connect with housing. According to the Civic Enterprises report, “the problem of connecting students to housing was identified by liaisons and youth as one of their biggest obstacles, made more difficult by the chronic shortage of affordable housing in so many communities across the United States.”

Spokane County is well aware of this. In the western Washington region, 3.7 percent of all students are considered homeless—a rate 33 percent higher than the state average. Of those students, 8.3 percent move at least one time throughout the school year, and in doing so, lose four to six months of academic progress. Patrick Stretch, the community development specialist for the Spokane County Community Services, Housing, and Community Development Department (CSHCD), wanted to devise a way to address the dual instabilities of shifting schools and place of rest each night.

In 2014, Stretch approached the district liaison with an idea: refer homeless students and their families in three of the area’s high-poverty schools to CSHCD, which already managed a rental-assistance program. In exchange for providing the families with around nine months of rental assistance, CSHCD would tack on requirements around student attendance and homework, and ensure that the child could remain in the same school. As part of the program, teachers in the three schools would be required to file bi-weekly reports on the students, measuring their academic, social, and emotional well-being.

Spokane County’s Homeless Student Program was so effective in its first year, Stretch says, that CSHCD expanded it out to a total of nine area schools. So far, it’s placed 14 families in permanent housing. Over the course of the program, students demonstrated a 16 percent improvement in academic scores, a 10 percent improvement on social indicators, and a 20 percent improvement in emotional states.

Navigating school systems is often a source of concern for homeless students and their parents, who fear their unstable living situation will come to light and force apart the family, Stretch says. Through the Spokane program, Stretch wants to do away with that notion. He’s recently asked principals to add an advisory notice about the program in the schools’ weekly newsletters, positioning the schools as a convener of resources that can help families stay together, and in the same place.

Students at a low-income school in Seattle, where many have been identified as homeless or at-risk. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

In March of this year, the Washington State Legislature passed the Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act, which would funnel up to $500,000 into school districts with at least 50 identified homeless students to develop programs that link their families with stable housing near the student’s school. Stretch believes that Spokane’s streamlined and low-cost model could prove effective in other districts throughout the state.

Washington is the first state to enact this funding model, which requires that all schools with more than 10 identified homeless students designate an employee who will connect students with the district liaison. “Schools are stretched so thin,” Ingram says. “They’re not equipped to do things like find kids a home, but they can act as a convener for these other community resources.” The Civic Enterprises report notes that, as more students are identified as homeless under ESSA, it will be crucial for more states to implement similar bills shoring up partnerships between housing authorities and schools.

As with any widespread reform, the effects of the ESSA provisions will take some time to materialize. But Duffield will be looking for an increase in the number of homeless students reported across the country. “It feels counterintuitive,” she says. “You think with all these new laws, you’d see homelessness go down, but the number should rise—and that’s a good thing. Because that’ll get more students graduating and transitioning into higher education.” It won’t happen overnight, Duffield says, but the education of homeless children and youth, she adds, “needs to be a long-term investment.” Solutions like those being rolled out in Washington and Michigan will be crucial.

Duffield has a phrase she likes to cite: “Nobody’s guaranteed a home in the U.S., but every child is guaranteed a seat in school.” For students experiencing homelessness, school has the potential to act as a lifeline—to an education, to a diploma, and to resources like housing and healthcare. The Civic Enterprises report notes that while ESSA has created momentum around recognizing that potential, the issue cuts across all sectors, inside and outside of the school system. “We must rally our communities,” the report adds, “think beyond the traditional circle of stakeholders working on issues of homelessness, and give these youth every opportunity to stay in school and on track.”

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