Tag Archives: Homeless students

1.3 Million Students Are Homeless. What’s the Good News?

Federal data released earlier this month indicate that more than 1.3 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2016-17 school year were homeless. This represents a 7 percent increase in the number of homeless students over a three-year period and a 70 percent spike in the last decade.

These numbers are troubling for many reasons: Homelessness is associated with a host of challenging life outcomes, including difficulty staying in and graduating from school.

But there’s some potentially good news here. First, though tough economic conditions, high housing costs, and other factors likely led to real increases in the number of students experiencing homelessness, it’s likely that some of the increase is due to school districts simply getting better at identifying their homeless students. That’s a good thing. Schools can’t support students experiencing homelessness if they don’t know who they are.

Second, the data captured in this report only include those students who are enrolled in public schools. That means that all of the 1.3 million homeless students are still enrolled in school. Their attendance may well be spotty, but they haven’t dropped out. They are known to a set of adults who work in a system that can provide them with the academic support they need and can connect them to other services. That’s hugely important.

As my colleague and I have written, the education system can be a powerful through-line for young people experiencing homelessness or any other destabilizing life event. As the place where the vast majority of children go every day and interact with adults, schools provide a natural central point for connecting services that can support a child’s education and meet their other needs.

Want to learn more? We’ve written about the human-centered design policies and methods that take into account the real needs of students who experience disruptions to their educational trajectories. We’ve also addressed the promise of technology to support students in transition and launched a game to help build empathy and understanding about the challenges young people face as they navigate destabilizing events like homelessness, incarceration, or foster care placement.

Students Served by Multiple Systems of Care Deserve Better

At any given point in time, about 5 million kids are served in one or more of our nation’s child service agencies. These young people are living through traumatic and disruptive experiences ranging from homelessness to foster care placement to incarceration.

As I wrote in this piece nearly two years ago, these children are navigating a fragmented world of adults, programs, and agencies, often operating as the only central point among all of the services.

In our latest publication, Continuity Counts, Hailly Korman and I offer our recommendations for addressing this fragmentation and improving cross-agency coordination. However, our project differs significantly from most other policy papers because we approached our research using human-centered design. This means that we started by talking to the very people who are impacted by agency fragmentation: the children and youth served by these agencies. We also talked to the direct-care providers working in various agencies. The goal of these interviews was to better understand the needs, wants, and constraints of both the youth and the care providers, in order to build a set of recommendations that addresses the challenges they face.

Through our human-centered design approach, we identified two key levers for change: continuity of people and continuity of information. By identifying a single adult to operate like a child’s “chief of staff,” we can mitigate the need for a child to interact with a myriad of adults. By improving data collection, sharing, and storage, we can reduce the burdens on youth and their caregivers that result from missing or incorrect information.

The silos that exist among agencies did not appear overnight and will not disappear quickly. However, just because agencies have always operated in relative isolation from one another does not mean it must always be like this. Eliminating, or at least substantially reducing, the fragmentation that exists among schools, government agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations is possible with deliberate and concerted effort over a long period of time. And doing so is necessary if we ever hope to provide youth with a cohesive, streamlined system of support throughout their education trajectories.

Read our full report here or our op-ed in The 74 here.

XQ Prize-Winning School Will Provide Educational Continuity for Disconnected Youth

RISE High, which just won $10 million in the XQ high school redesign competition, was created to address the unique needs of students facing disruptive life circumstances.

School instability is one of the biggest educational issues facing youth who experience crises like homelessness, foster care placement, or incarceration. These youth often miss school frequently and switch schools repeatedly, and, subsequently, they face diminished long-term academic outcomes.

Screen Shot 2016-09-16 at 4.49.34 PMThere are a number of things that schools and districts can do to facilitate attendance and consistency for students whose educations are severely disrupted — things like rerouting school buses, sharing data across agencies, implementing wraparound services, and utilizing competency-based education — but few truly solve the physical challenge of getting students to and from school every day.

Until now. RISE High will have several physical sites, an online learning system, and a mobile resource center. Students will have the option to attend any one of the school’s physical or virtual sites, helping ensure students can access the day’s lessons and/or tutoring regardless of where they may be. The physical sites will be co-located with service providers, and the mobile unit will be equipped with hygiene products, cell phone chargers, and Internet access to solve some of the basic — and often overlooked — challenges these students face.

But RISE High will do more for these students than just meet them where they are physically. Because it is one school, it eliminates many of the common barriers that highly transient students face. Students will be able to maintain consistent enrollment in a single school but attend multiple sites—rather than un-enroll and re-enroll in a new school with each move. Students will not risk losing credits due to course incompatibility between schools or districts. Instead, RISE High will provide each student with a personalized learning plan and allow them to earn credit upon mastery of a unit. This type of competency-based learning can be powerful for students whose life circumstances make it challenging to regularly attend a traditional school with seat-time requirements. And students will have a single record of their coursework rather than a complicated file cobbled together by many schools over time, which can help facilitate high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment.

RISE High has incredible potential to increase the continuity and consistency of the school experiences of youth whose educations have been severely disrupted. With greater consistency comes greater educational success, and, ultimately, more promising life outcomes.

Serving Disconnected Youth in a Dispersed School System

What happens to homeless and disconnected youth in a decentralized system of schools? This is a question that must be top of mind as charter school enrollment climbs and school systems become increasingly decentralized in cities across the country. (For an in-depth look at data on charter schools, see a new Bellwether resource, the Learning Landscape.) To some extent, education leaders have begun to grapple with the challenges of meeting all students’ needs when the district is no longer the only provider of education. Services like special education and policies like discipline — once in the sole purview of the district — have had to be reimagined to ensure equality and fairness across a decentralized system of schools.

In the same way, the systems and policies in place to support homeless and other disconnected youth must be reimagined to ensure students’ needs are identified and met.

The McKinney-Vento Act Captureoutlines the services homeless students are entitled to, including requiring each local education agency (LEA) to have a homeless liaison on staff, in charge of identifying homeless youth and liaising with outside agencies such as homeless shelters or mental health services. Though this model has its challenges, it does streamline districts’ advocacy efforts for homeless youth. In a traditional district, one person is in charge of coordinating with all necessary agencies to ensure that a homeless child’s needs are met. In cities where the majority of school-aged students attend the local school district, this means that those agencies are generally working with a single person to meet the needs of the majority of homeless students in the city.

But in cities with large numbers of charter schools, there could be dozens of liaisons — from numerous CMOs, independent charter schools, and the district — reaching out to the same limited number of service agencies in an attempt to secure services for their homeless students. The increased burden of coordination across many schools could lead to a decline in the quality of services.

It is imperative that education leaders and policymakers plan carefully and thoughtfully to ensure that homeless and disconnected youth are not lost in the shuffle. There is also real opportunity for new thinking around these issues: The autonomy and flexibility of the charter sector gives leaders a chance to fully reimagine the relationship between schools and service providers, cutting through silos and pioneering new ways for schools to identify homeless and other disconnected students and ensure there are supports are in place to help them do well.

States Should Redefine “Need” When Subgranting Federal Funds for Homeless Students

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has helped ensure that homeless children and youth have access to the same educational opportunities as their non-homeless peers. Under the legislation, the U.S. Department of Education provides grants to states, which in turn provide subgrants to local education agencies (LEAs). LEAs can use these grants for a variety of projects, including coordinating with local service agencies or expediting enrollment for homeless students. Most often these subgrants are awarded on a competitive basis, and funding levels are determined by “need.” Unfortunately, the way states determine need is insufficient.

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 1.16.50 PMTypically, need is defined as the number of homeless students served in the district. In California and Ohio, for example, though all LEAs are eligible to apply for a grant, grant amounts are based on the LEA’s reported count of homeless students in the previous year. In Virginia, the size of the homeless student population accounts for 30 percent of an LEA’s overall application score.

To be sure, the size of the homeless student population is an important consideration for states when making subgrants. The more homeless students a district has, the more resources are needed to ensure those students are served. But homeless population size may not be the only, or most important, determiner of an LEA’s need for additional funds.

Homeless students face a host of challenges both in and out of school, and districts often rely on partnerships with outside service agencies to support homeless students and their families in accessing food, clothing, shelter, and mental and physical health services. But the disparity in the availability of service agencies based on geography is well documented. Agencies and organizations serving the homeless tend to be clustered in city centers, meaning that LEAs located in or near urban areas have a variety of agencies at their disposal, while rural and suburban areas have greater difficulty accessing similar services. When these services do exist, the lack of public transportation can make it difficult for families to access them. As a result, schools and districts located in rural and suburban geographies are often less equipped to deal with student homelessness than those located in urban areas and therefore may need more funds to bring in services or transport students and families to agencies in neighboring towns.

If geography and the availability of outside service agencies were considered alongside the homeless population size, a fuller picture of an LEA’s “need” for a McKinney-Vento subgrant would emerge. It is likely the case, for example, that a rural school district has a harder time supporting 100 homeless students and accessing necessary services than does an urban district with 1,000 homeless students.

Ultimately, states should consider these other relevant factors alongside the LEA’s homeless population count when determining need and subgranting funds. Doing so would help school districts better meet the needs of some of society’s most vulnerable children.