Education Week: Renewed focus needed to help homeless students stay in school, study argues

By guest blogger Catherine Gewertz

A new study calls for an intense focus on helping homeless students stay in school, noting that new requirements and supports in the Every Student Succeeds Act can aid that effort.

“Hidden in Plain Sight,” released Monday, documents the disconnections that are already familiar to many who work with homeless students. Using surveys and interviews with a small pool of young people who are, or have been, homeless, and with some of the state liaisons who try to help them, Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates paint a portrait of a system that too often fails to provide the supports necessary to keep them in school, and even worse, creates barriers to their retention or re-entry.

The new federal education law, ESSA, for the first time requires states to track and report the academic achievement and graduation rates of homeless students, like any other subgroup. That reporting requirement alone could apply pressure to states and districts to do a better job identifying and supporting homeless students, the report suggests. ESSA has a flock of other new provisions that bolster resources and requirements aimed at helping homeless students.

But the problems that lead homeless students to leave school—or have trouble re-enrolling after being gone for a while—are so deep and complex that they demand more than changes to federal law, the report says.

Being aware of, and abiding by, existing law would be a start: School officials are often unaware that the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act already guarantees students the right to re-enroll in school after an extended absence, or change schools, without having to show proof of residency. Students who have experienced homelessness told the researchers that this was one of the biggest hurdles to continuing their schooling as their home situations were in flux.


The students also told the researchers that they need a mix of both physical and emotional supports to enable them to re-enroll or stay in school.HomelessStudentsSupportsNeededCivicEnterprises.JPG

Schools and districts are unable to meet those needs with any consistency, however. Special liaisons hired to identify and help homeless students find themselves spread far too thin: Ninety percent said they have other duties, too, and spend half their time or less on helping students who are homeless, the study says.

The result is an alarming, if familiar, profile: Homeless students find it harder to make good connections with peers and adults, and are more likely to fall behind in school and drop out (42 percent of the students interviewed by the researchers said they had dropped out of school one or more times.). And the reach of these problems is growing: The number of homeless students in the country doubled between 2006-07 and 2013-14, to 1.3 million, the report says.

Many layers and levels of attention are required to help homeless students stay in school through graduation. The report identifies efforts necessary on the state and federal level, such as enforcing ESSA’s provisions for homeless students and stepping up efforts to provide affordable housing.

Schools can make a difference by connecting homeless students with a web of community services, paying closer attention to early-warning signs of trouble, such as chronic absence or poor grades, and training school staff in better identifying homeless students. Also key: Going the extra mile to provide missed assignments, being flexible with assignment timelines, facilitating transcript and test-score paperwork in a transfer; and helping navigate tricky legal issues such as getting parental consent for school activities or re-enrollment.

The Civic Enterprises/Hart Research Associates study was based on three telephone focus groups with state coordinators or liaisons for homeless youth, an online survey of 504 liaisons, a survey of 158 young people who were homeless at some point in middle or high school, and 44 interviews with young people who are currently