school climate
Data illustrate need for greater focus on California’s homeless students
In the 2016-17 school year, 4.2 percent of California’s public school students were identified as homeless, according to a new report from Education Leads Home. The state’s homeless student population that year of 262,935 marks a 4.16 percent increase from the 2012-13 school year. Researchers and advocates say the facts reinforce the need for state-level policymakers, district officials and board members to allocate additional resources toward the issue and to address root causes.

Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit on March 6 approved an audit of districts to verify they are accurately reporting the number of students experiencing homelessness. Officials said a quarter of schools are reporting to the state that they have no such students. The audit will also study barriers schools face in identifying students experiencing homelessness, why students may be going unreported, and best practices to identify and provide services to them.

At the same time, the concern realized for several years in California is rapidly coming to light on a national scale. Education Leads Home found that the number of students identified as homeless in the United States has increased by nearly 100 percent since 2007-08, for a 2016-17 population of 1,355,821. That number marks the highest number on record, which may be a result of improved state and school identification of homeless students. Researchers note this could be a positive step toward those students receiving more supports and a better path in life. (Federal education law defines a homeless student as one who “lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.”)

Students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school than their housed peers, according to the America’s Promise Alliance’s 2016 report “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

“Homelessness among students is more than just a housing problem. It impacts every aspect of a child’s life,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of national nonprofit and Education Leads Home partner SchoolHouse Connection. “Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty and establishing economic mobility. It’s the only way we can prevent today’s homeless children and youth from becoming the next generation of homeless adults.”

The Education Leads Home report recommends schools and districts can help homeless students by connecting them with housing organizations, mental and physical health providers, mentoring groups and extracurricular activities.

The researchers note that additional accountability to better serve homeless students may be provided through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, as the law now requires states to disaggregate graduation rates for homeless students. States will be required to share the 2017-18 graduation rates for homeless students next year. Data from 26 states (not including California) for 2016-17 showed that homeless students had a national average graduation rate of 64 percent, compared to the low-income student rate of 77.6 percent and 84.1 percent rate for all students.

The California data

In tracking the population of homeless students in California and other states, the Education Leads Home report notes that the number is an undercount, as the number of students enrolled does not include: school-aged youth and children who experience homelessness during the summer only; those who dropped out of school; or young children not enrolled in preschool programs administered by local educational agencies.

The report also includes data from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness which finds that about five in every 10 extremely poor 6- to 17-year-olds were homeless in California. (Extremely poor is measured as those living at or below 50 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.)

California’s students can also experience homelessness at any point in their educational life: An estimated 7.3 percent of children under age 6 experience homelessness, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Toward the higher education end, 3,871 FAFSA applicants in California were determined to be (or at risk of becoming) an unaccompanied homeless youth, according to the National Center for Homeless Education.

Homelessness is also not a homogenous experience, researchers note, as students may stay in a shelter, motel, car or with other people because they have nowhere else to go. In fact, 84.8 percent of homeless students in California’s public schools stayed with others while homeless, the NCHE reports.

Keeping kids in school

Efforts can be made to help students experiencing homelessness stay in school. Examples include:

  • Being more flexible with attendance policies and assignment timelines
  • Assisting students as they work through transfers of test scores and transcripts
  • Helping students navigate legal issues around obtaining legal consent to re-enroll or participate in school activities