I Was a Homeless Student and School Helped Me Find My Way Home

By Jamie Warren, SHC Young Leader, graduating senior at Wayland Baptist University and teaching assistant at Shallowater Elementary in Shallowater, Texas. 

This story originally appeared on Education Post.

I first experienced homelessness with my family, then on my own. I was born to a single mother and a father who was absent because of post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after the war. Throughout my childhood, my mother, two sisters and I moved from home to home, sometimes not having one at all.

I changed schools so often that my teachers couldn’t test me and begin instruction before I left again. I rarely made friends because I never had enough time to get to know them. When I was 16, my mother finally settled with a man who had no desire to be a father. I became an unaccompanied youth—a minor who is homeless without a “present” guardian—and had to support myself financially.

Working a full-time job and trying to function as a “normal” student sometimes felt impossible. I often fell asleep in my first period class, causing my teachers—unaware of my situation—much frustration. On multiple occasions, they reprimanded me in front of my classmates for being “irresponsible.”

That changed when I broke my arm as a junior in high school. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t sign for my own medical care, and I spent six weeks in a splint that the ER doctor only intended for me to wear for a week before it was casted. In the end, it exposed my secret to my teachers—and then everything changed for me.

A Place I Felt Supported

Despite all the problems homelessness caused for me at school, it was still a place I could feel supported.

More than other adults in my life, teachers presented me with a reason to smile or an opportunity to be something more. I remember crying in my teacher’s office because school and a full-time job were too much to handle, and graduation seemed like a fantasy.

According to a recent report, Hidden in Plain Sight, students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out. This exacerbates the existing issue, as a lack of a high school diploma or GED is the top risk factor for young adult homelessness, making them 4.5 times more likely to experience it.

But to my teacher Mrs. Roberts, that was not an option.

Life is not easy, she taught me, but the only way to make it easier is to have an education. She spent day after day building my confidence and guiding me to a successful path. She also introduced me to a woman who became a mentor and guided me in the ways that she could not.

As Center for Promise research shows, sometimes the most important thing an adult can do for young people is to introduce them to other caring adults, which together form a broader web of support.

Ultimately, Mrs. Roberts showed me that it was indeed possible to change my future in a constructive way. I did not have to fall into the same pattern as my family.

People often ask me, “Why are you going to school to teach—don’t you know you could make so much more money in a different field?”

My response to that question is pretty simple: Education has the power to change one’s entire life. Education is a major reason for my success, and one day I will change a student’s life with education.

This is why the new Education Leads Home campaign, the only national campaign of its kind focused solely on meeting the educational needs of homeless students, is so critical to helping students get on the other side of homelessness. Homelessness is more than just a housing problem, and addressing it requires different services coming together.

Housing agencies, health and mental health care, child care and employment training and opportunities and legal services can work together with and through the public school system to create stability and supports.

But before we can help more agencies fight this problem, more people have to be aware of it.

Homeless Youth Exist “In Every State and Every District”

When asked what schools can do to better identify and track homeless students, my answer is simple: awareness. Homeless students and unaccompanied youth exist in every state and every district. Nationwide, there are currently 1.3 million homeless students and many more who are unseen and unheard.

There is hope that more people will become aware with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

This year marks the first time that all states are required to track graduation rates for homeless students to meet ESSA standards. Stronger protections are in place to identify these students and to meet their unique needs. Similar policies are newly in place in early care and education programs, as well as higher education.

However, the work cannot stop there. Educators need practical support, evidence-based practices and technical assistance to implement these policies and make sure they benefit children and youth.

Furthermore, teachers are not the only adults who have a part to play. As a society, we must all help remove the stigma and fear that prevent homeless students from turning to adults for help. If students are never identified as homeless, they remain hidden within the school system with little, if any, access to the resources and support they need.

Teachers and schools are often the home that many homeless students rely on. They saved my life. It’s time to take a closer look at the gaps in our system so we can provide more homeless students with the support they need to reach their full potential.

Education Leads Home State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project

Education Leads Home’s State Partnerships on Student Homelessness bring together governors’ offices, housing providers, educators and community organizations from around the country to take action toward overcoming child and youth homelessness through education. Through these dynamic partnerships, each state team will research and implement new approaches to address the most urgent needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness in their state. The State Partnerships on Student Homelessness are a nonpartisan initiative to promote proven, effective practices and policies that can be replicated by communities and states nationwide.

In this inaugural year of its State Partnerships, Education Leads Home (ELH) awarded grants to six states — California, Kentucky, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — through a competitive process. ELH will provide ongoing support to maximize the Partnerships’ impact in those six states and across the nation.

By working directly with state leaders to develop and implement strategic action plans, and creating an innovative and collaborative “learning lab” of best practices from birth through postsecondary education, ELH’s State Partnerships will promote educational achievement and help break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

State Partnership goals include:

  • improving access to high-quality early childhood education;
  • expanding existing host home programs for unaccompanied youth;
  • piloting school-housing partnerships to facilitate high school graduation;
  • improving the use of existing federal funding to increase state-level staffing capacity and local supports for students experiencing homelessness; and improving state policies and practices to address challenges including chronic absenteeism, suspension rates, and high school credit accrual.

State-specific summaries may be found below.

California: California’s grantee team, co-led by the Office of the Governor, the California Department of Education, and the Center for the Transformation of Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles, will explore not only where students experiencing homeless are, but also what types of school-related services are being provided to students and their families. The state plans to use this landscape analysis to devise and implement a more coordinated and comprehensive strategy for ensuring prevention and support efforts serve the academic, social, emotional, and health needs of students experiencing homelessness, from birth to career.

Hawaii: Hawaii’s grantee team is co-led by the Office of the Governor, the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, and the Executive Office on Early Learning/Hawaii Head Start Collaboration Office, and includes representatives from the Hawaii Departments of Education and Health, the University of Hawaii Center on the Family, PATCH Hawaii, and Ka Pa‘alana Homeless Family Education Program. The project will help operationalize and support a recently-developed Hawaii Early Childhood State Plan to increase the enrollment of young children experiencing homelessness in early care and education programs and services within their communities and to support their healthy growth and development. Activities are designed to assess barriers to enrolling children into programs, incentivize early care and education providers to enroll more homeless children, encourage shelter providers to support this endeavor, and increase access to and use of childcare subsidies by families experiencing homelessness.

Kentucky: Kentucky’s grantee team is co-led by the Office of the Governor, Erlanger-Elsmere School District, and Covington Independent Public School District, with support from the Kentucky Housing Corporation, Welcome House of Northern Kentucky, and Brighton Center. The team will support increased capacity for and the development of training initiatives for regional businesses and other community partners to improve identification of students experiencing homelessness and provide them with trauma-informed services. The team will also will provide one-time homelessness prevention supports to at-risk families identified by the schools, including utility assistance payments, rental application fees, security deposits, and short-term rent or mortgage assistance.

Nevada: Nevada’s grantee team, co-led by the Office of the Governor and the Nevada Department of Education, aims to help school districts strategically budget their Title I set-aside dollars to enhance the support they provide for students experiencing homelessness. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, all local educational agencies that receive Title I Part A funds must reserve funds to support homeless students. The team also will create state-level guidance and procedures to reduce chronic absenteeism and dropout rates, and increase graduation rates, of young people experiencing homelessness.

Oregon: Oregon’s grantee team, co-led by the Office of the Governor, the Departments of Education and Human Services, and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, seeks to significantly improve the high school success of unaccompanied homeless students by helping communities replicate Second Home, a successful host home model that partners with school districts and mediators from a community-based dispute resolution center. The team will increase programmatic awareness, solicit host home volunteers, and rally financial support throughout the state, with the ultimate goal of connecting eligible students with family hosts and increasing collaboration among schools, housing providers, and community-based organizations. The current Second Home program has enabled its students to earn a 96% graduation rate, while the overall four-year graduation rate for homeless students in that same district is only 49%.

Washington State: Washington’s grantee team, co-led by the Office of the Governor and Building Changes, will research and evaluate the state’s early learning policies to promote the participation of young children experiencing homelessness in early learning programs. As part of this process, the team will partner with the Washington State Association of Head Start & ECEAP (the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) to convene a stakeholder meeting and distribute surveys to early learning and housing providers across the state. These activities and additional research will culminate in a policy analysis and recommendations to support young children and their families experiencing homelessness.

For more information on the SPP project or ELH, please contact Katie Brown, ELH Program Manager, at katie@schoolhouseconnection.org.

Sponsors

Deutsche Bank
Raikes Foundation
The California Wellness Foundation
Education Counsel

Education Leads Home Releases Homeless Student State Snapshots

Twenty-six states share high school graduation rates for homeless students that reveal educational challenges above and beyond poverty alone.

Line graph showing a steadily rising number of homeless students from 800,000 in 2016 to 1,355,821 in 2017
Bar charts for 44 states showing graduation rates for all students, economically disadvantaged students, and homeless students.

State-level data shows that homeless students graduate on time at significantly lower rates than their housed peers. In fact, data from the National Center for Homeless Education1 released this week found a national average graduation rate of just 64 percent for homeless students, as compared to the low-income rate of 77.6 percent, and 84.1 percent for all students.

These gaps reflect the significant educational challenges – above and beyond poverty – that homeless students face. We can and must do more to remove these barriers. Students cannot afford to miss out on the critical first step of a high school diploma due to homelessness.

Erin Ingram, Senior Policy Advisor, CIVIC

One of the Education Leads Home campaign goals is to raise the graduation rate for homeless students to 90 percent by 2030. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are now required to disaggregate graduation rates for homeless students and will be required to share 2017-2018 graduation rates for homeless students next year. Among the 26 states that have shared graduation rates for homeless students with Education Leads Home, the lowest rate is just 45 percent.

In addition, this year marks the highest number of homeless students enrolled in public schools on record. This increase may be due in part to improved school identification of homeless students, a positive first step, since those students will be more likely to access the supports they need if identified. Armed with an arguably more accurate understanding of the breadth and depth of student needs, states reporting higher numbers of homeless students or lower graduation rates are well positioned to be acutely responsive with targeted services, policies, and practices.

Homelessness among students is more than just a housing problem. It impacts every aspect of a child’s life. 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 good news is that we have strong policy on the books that many school districts are implementing robustly; we can and should learn from and replicate these best practices.

Barbara Duffield, Executive Director, SchoolHouse Connection

State Report Cards


Recommendations

  1. Refine and standardize systems for identifying homeless students in school
  2. Actively work with students to help them stay in school. Examples include:
    • Be more flexible with policies around attendance and timelines for assignments;
    • Assist students as they work through challenges in transfers of test scores and transcripts;
    • Help students navigate legal issues around obtaining parental consent to re-enroll or participate in school activities
  3. Actively work to connect homeless students to outside supports, such as housing organizations, mental and physical health providers, mentoring groups, and extracurricular activities.
  4. Work to ensure ESSA is fully implemented, including removing the barriers to access as required by law, and educating school staff on the requirements of McKinney-Vento under ESSA.

Conclusion

Students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent2 more likely to drop out of school than their housed peers; without a high school diploma, youth are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness3 later in life.

Furthermore, more than 95 percent of jobs created during the economic recovery have gone to workers with at least some college education, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind. Research continues to support the imperative of actively addressing the educational needs of homeless students to help break the cycle of poverty.

As ESSA is implemented, Education Leads Home will continue to monitor states’ progress and identify and share best practices to improve student outcomes in communities across the country. This data will allow experts and policymakers to assess the need for improved policies and targeted resources to keep students on track to graduate.

Media Kit

Media Contacts

Matt Atwell, CIVIC, matwell@civicenterprises.net

Barbara Duffield, SchoolHouse Connection, barbara@schoolhouseconnection.org

Citations

  1. https://nche.ed.gov/
  2. http://www.americaspromise.org/report/hidden-plain-sight
  3. http://voicesofyouthcount.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/ChapinHall_VoYC_NationalReport_Final.pdf

Sponsors

Deutsche Bank
Raikes Foundation
The California Wellness Foundation
Education Counsel