Students without a stable place to live have significantly worse educational outcomes than their housed counterparts, according to a new report.
Schoolhouse Washington, a project of nonprofit Building Changes, released the study last week. Using data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), they’ve found that students living unsheltered, in emergency shelters or doubled-up in homes not their own all score worse on standardized tests than students who are stably housed.
While that outcome itself is not surprising — more broad data samples have found the same thing — the report itself is novel: It is the first time that the data has been parsed by where students sleep at night, said Matt Lemon, author of the report and senior evaluation associate at Building Changes.
“What we add is a much deeper dive into outcomes for students by nighttime residence,” Lemon said. “We also add extra comparison between housed and low-income students.”
Low-income status is determined by a student’s eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch program.
The authors found that only 62 percent of homeless students attend school on a regular basis, compared to 86 percent of housed students and 81 percent of low-income students. Homeless students are also suspended at twice the rate of housed students and fall considerably behind on standardized tests.
There are a number of reasons for these disparities, said Liza Burell, program director at Building Changes. Perhaps most importantly learning requires concentration.
“It’s hard to focus on academics if you don’t know where you’re sleeping at night,” Burell said.
But unstable housing has plenty of other impacts; as the attendance metric shows, homeless students miss more school, potentially causing them to fall behind. They may also switch schools frequently. Multiple studies have found that when a child switches schools, they lose up to four months of learning. Changing schools twice in one year effectively wipes out a year of attendance.
The federal government defines homelessness differently for students than it does for adults. Under the federal McKinney Vento Act, a student is homeless if they are living unsheltered, in emergency shelter, in motels or if they are “doubled up,” meaning that they are sleeping inside, but they’re living with family or friends.
One unique finding in the report was that there was little variation between categories of homeless students — whether they were in shelters, doubled-up or sleeping in a car, they all fared worse than students with a stable home.
Minding the gap
There is an element of racial inequity at play, as well; homelessness disproportionately impacts students of color, furthering the education gap.
According to the report, 60 percent of the 40,934 homeless students in Washington state are students of color. In every category, the percentage of students of color experiencing homelessness outpaces the average.
The authors found that 3.5 percent of students in the state are homeless, but 8.8 percent of Black students, 8 percent of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students and 7.8 percent of Native American and Alaska natives are homeless in the state.
And the numbers are growing.
In 2007, 18,670 students in the state were homeless. A decade later, that number more than doubled. Today, one in 25 students experiences homelessness. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which every classroom in the state has at least one student in need of extra support, Burell said.
“We do want to point out that this issue impacts our entire state,” Burell said. “It’s a rural problem and an urban problem. We want to make sure that everyone understands that this hits everywhere.”
Unfortunately, the data shows that the state with the sixth-highest number of homeless students and eighth-highest percentage of homeless students struggles to give them the support they need to succeed academically.
The McKinney Vento law that defines homelessness among students also requires that school districts provide extra resources to help them succeed.
There are McKinney Vento liaisons in schools to help connect students to resources, be it transportation or extra tutoring. In a McKinney Vento training in 2017, a speaker told the audience that if a homeless student needs equipment to participate in extracurricular activities, the school should provide that, too.
But in many cases, the money just isn’t there.
The federal government provides the state of Washington $950,000 a year to fund this federally mandated program. That works out to $23.20 per homeless child, although the money isn’t distributed evenly. Instead, it’s given out as grants, said Nathan Olson, communications director for OSPI.
“There are 29 districts that receive those grants,” Olson said. “They’re used for a variety of things. Extra tutoring, instruction, enrichment, early childhood education and things like that. A little for transportation.”
Under the law, schools have to provide homeless students adequate transportation to and from school. In some cases, that means sending taxi cabs to pick kids up. The state has put an additional $1 million behind transportation grants and another $850,000 into the Homeless Students Stability Program, an effort begun in 2016 to supplement spending.
Burell estimates that federal and state governments invest a total of $4 million in support for homeless students.
It’s still not enough, Olson said.
“We have long wished it were more money,” Olson said.
How much remains an open question.
There is no figure in government circles indicating what amount of money it would take to fully fund a McKinney Vento program that adequately supports homeless students. The costs are spread out among schools and school districts, students need different kinds and levels of support and the population of homeless students continues to grow.
OSPI plans to go to the legislature in the upcoming session to ask for more money for support services for homeless students, Olson said.
“We know that there are other factors that are barriers for these students,” he said. “For example, often these students need additional medical care. Mental health issues can arise from not having a home. Part of what we’re looking at for this next legislative session is nursing corps and counselors to help guide them on their path to graduation.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal requested $60 million for nurses, middle school counselors and community engagement coordinators, NBC Right Now reported Tuesday.
It comes at a tense time around school funding. Legislators plopped billions into the K-12 education budget this year, but also restricted the amount that schools can raise locally through property taxes. There are already concerns that the new spending may not be sustainable.
Given the dire crisis facing schools, Burell hopes that the report spurs awareness, questions and, ultimately, solutions.
“We want people paying attention to this group of young people,” she said. “We can’t always have the same response that we’ve always had and expect different outcomes.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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