2020 Homeless Student State Snapshots

Each year, the Education Leads Home Campaign publishes Snapshots for all 50 State and the District of Columbia. The Snapshots provide data on the number of homeless students identified and enrolled in public schools, the number of extremely poor children and youth experiencing homelessness, the percentage of children under the age of six experiencing homelessness, and the number of FASFA applications determined to be an unaccompanied homeless youth. These reports also show the numbers of homeless students identified in each state since 2013-14 and the high school graduation rates of all students, homeless students, and economically disadvantaged students across the state. 

Below you can find the 2020 update to your state’s snapshot. 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 understand the scale and context of their state’s student homelessness population and locally tailor policies to support their unique population.

Homeless State Snapshots

Five Questions with Dr. Patricia Popp: Training is Critical to Support Students Experiencing Homelessness

Dr. Pat Popp is the Virginia State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has outsourced the homeless education program, called Project HOPE-Virginia, to the William and Mary School of Education since 1995. Pat oversees and carries out all of the state’s requirements to implement the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program for Virginia, including state level policies, interagency collaboration, training, technical assistance, monitoring of school districts, and awarding and managing subgrants to school districts (of which the state has 132). For the past several years, Virginia schools have identified approximately 20,000 students as experiencing homelessness at some point during an academic year. Pat notes that her favorite part of the job is problem solving with like-minded colleagues who care about doing what is right to support students.

SIDE NOTE

States Pat, “As a side note, I feel that Virginia is unique in having its State Coordinator sited at an institute of higher education, and I thought I’d share a bit about how that came to be. The Office of the State Coordinator was mandated in the first authorization of the Stewart B. McKinney Act in 1987. Originally, VDOE housed the position. In 1995, the State Coordinator at the time left and the program had a very small budget of less than $400,000. Our state Superintendent was trying to decide how to proceed when he met James Stronge, a College of William and Mary faculty member, at a luncheon. Dr. Stronge had just written a book on promising practices in the education of homeless children and youth that had won a national award. National expertise in the backyard and Dr. Stronge’s entrepreneurial skills led to William and Mary assuming responsibility for the program for the 1995-96 academic year and naming the office Project HOPE with Dr. Stronge as the State Coordinator. That happens to be the year I started in the doctoral program under an OSEP grant. The faculty mentor assigned to me as part of the grant assisted Dr. Stronge in evaluating the status of Virginia’s homeless education program. That was my introduction to homeless education. For the next several years, I spent more and more time working in the HOPE office. In 2003, Dr. Stronge decided it was time for me to have the title of State Coordinator.”

How and why is training teachers (both pre-service and in the field) a big part of how you support students experiencing homelessness?

Being located in a School of Education, I have the opportunity to teach preservice teachers and incorporate the study of student homelessness into those classes where there is a strong intersection (such as issues of mobility and the impact on classroom management). In addition, I have been a guest lecturer for other education classes, undergraduate service learning groups, and our W&M Law School. Our office also has the benefit of hiring graduate assistants studying at W&M. These students become our HOPE ambassadors when they graduate and begin working in Virginia schools. Being the State Coordinator, I also have many opportunities to share our work with teachers in the field.

I was a teacher for students with disabilities when I entered the W&M doctoral program almost 25 years ago. I still see myself primarily as an educator. I truly believe that nothing we do in education makes a difference unless it affects a student. Since teachers have the most direct influence on our students, it is imperative that they be part of our work in homeless education. Teachers can be sensitive to the warning signs that a student is facing housing instability and should know how to make appropriate referrals to the local liaison to enhance our identification process. Teachers should have strategies that make students feel welcome, wanted, and safe in their classrooms so they can learn. Teachers need a large repertoire of supports to address the physical and affective needs of their students. Whether it means having snacks and extra breakfast items in the class for anyone who is hungry or assigning a buddy (I prefer “academic ambassador”) when a new student joins the class midyear, there are so many small steps teachers can take to reach our students.

What are some of your most effective and eye-opening teacher training strategies?

In addition to the McKinney-Vento basics of definition and rights to immediate enrollment and school stability, I find the most powerful part of any training is the use of activities that give teachers a chance to “feel” what it is like to lack resources that people who are more affluent take for granted. I give Jani Koester, a Wisconsin liaison, credit for filling my toolkit with empathy-building activities: the United Way Making Choices budget activity, her “What is Your Day Like?” questionnaire, and, when there is time, her Mobility Shuffle simulation. It is becoming more common that a preservice or current teacher will come up to me individually after a training and share their own history of homelessness. The hope I derive from these conversations is knowing we will have teachers who really understand what our students go through and can help change the narrative about what the future needs to be for students who are homeless. Students need to hear about success stories, and the more we have, the more we will get!

According to your students, what are some of the biggest barriers that teachers face in supporting homeless students in the classroom? 

There are Herculean tasks for our teachers if we are truly going to move the needle on the academic and life success of our students experiencing homelessness. Teachers must know their craft and have the ability to quickly assess academic needs, find ways to “fill in” any missing skills, and still challenge and excite our students. This includes sending the message that our students can be successful and will have opportunities for a future without homelessness. It may be planting the seed that college is in a kindergartner’s future or being the warm demander that will not let a student give less than his best on an essay in Senior English. We ask a great deal of our teachers, and do not always give them the support they need. I think the greatest barrier/challenge I hear from teachers is the lack of support and tools to meet the needs of their students. It is not enough, but uplifting our teachers by voicing our respect and acknowledging their work is a good beginning. We need ongoing research to really figure out what works and what is most critical in our instructional interventions. This is so difficult with students who move so frequently that typical research analyses may not work. Action research with teachers might be a vehicle to explore. We certainly need to listen to teachers and make them a more visible part of our work.

Can you share “success story” of how one teacher implemented his or her training when working with a student experiencing homelessness?

I remember observing an elementary school teacher who taught in a school located near the motels in one of our beach areas. During the off season, the not-so-nice places had low rates that some of our families could afford, so her school saw an influx of students over the winter. She was committed to providing for the needs of her students. Snacks and breakfast items that could be warmed in the classroom microwave were available for anyone who needed them. She worked consciously on creating a welcoming classroom environment and wove many cooperative learning activities into her lessons that supported the social-emotional needs of her students. The school also had a principal who advocated for students experiencing homelessness and provided state leadership with insights about our students’ needs. The LEA had a strong McKinney-Vento program, so students were sure to stay in the school despite the increasing hotel rates as the temperature increased in the spring. Seeing the support across for our students across all those levels makes a difference.

What do you most want teachers to know about their role supporting students experiencing homelessness?   

Teachers can inspire students or demoralize them. They need to know what great power they hold in the lives of their students. We need to support our teachers by acknowledging their importance in our work, ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to serve our students, and doing a better job of reaching out to them and then listening to their voices as we navigate our future work.

Five Questions with Jo Zimmer: Expanding Access to Host Homes for Unaccompanied Youth

Jo Zimmer, MPAE, owner of Beyond-the-Box Strategies, LLC, brings more than 20 years’ experience in safety net programs, most recently to the 28-county Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC), in her contracted role as Consultant/Coordinator for the Oregon team’s State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project. By helping agencies and entities cooperatively address issues of housing, homelessness, and poverty in rural Oregon, she hopes to assist communities in doing “better” with less and reframe traditional thinking about funding and service delivery.

Additionally, Jo is a member of the Code Amendments Task Force in Albany, Oregon; Commissioner/Chair of the Community Development Commission in Albany, Oregon; a member of the Oregon DHS Homeless Youth Advisory Board; former Chair of the Homeless Engagement and Resource Team (HEART) in Albany, Oregon; Advisory Board Member of Jackson Street Youth Services in Corvallis, Oregon; and a participant in the OHCS Supported Housing Strategic Workgroup.

What does youth homelessness in Oregon look like?

Close to four percent of Oregon’s public school students are homeless, and nearly 17% of those students are unaccompanied by parents or guardians.

Oregon’s 2018-2019 school year numbers of youth experiencing homelessness reflect stark realities [1]:

  1. 3.88% (22,215) of the total number of enrolled students K-12 were identified as experiencing homelessness; 45% of these students are located in mostly rural counties
  2. 17% (3,700) of all students experiencing homelessness were unaccompanied (not in physical custody of parent or legal guardian)
  3. 7% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were sheltered when they were first identified as homeless (43% of which were rural)
  4. 5% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were unsheltered when they were first identified as homeless (50% of which were rural)
  5. 88% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were staying with others when they were first identified as homeless (44% of which were rural)
  6. Fewer than 1% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were living in motels/hotels when they were first identified as homeless (38% of which were rural)

While Oregon school districts are consistently successful at connecting unaccompanied youth with educational services and supports, the biggest barrier to high school graduation and overall school success for these young people is often the lack of a decent, regular, and safe place to sleep.

Tell us a little bit about Oregon’s host homes: how do host homes in Oregon help promote high school graduation for students experiencing homelessness?

The Scaling Up Second Home Initiative (SUSHI) grant was written to improve statewide information-sharing about alternative housing options for unaccompanied youth that support their efforts to complete high school. Specifically, we sought to encourage community-supported safe and stable housing options that keep youth connected to “home.”

We believe and have found that students who are safely supported in “home-like” environments fare far better in school: one local host home program boasts a 95% graduation rate of its participating students compared to Oregon’s statewide average of 53%.

Part of our initiative’s information-gathering involved building an inventory of host home-like opportunities and noting potential future host homes and/or future programming options. While the Second Home program facilitated through Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon is the specific host home model shared during our community presentations, the state does not have an “official” host home model at this time. Rather, a number of optional models (including those espoused by Point Source Youth; Mason County, Washington; and Homeless Youth Connection, Arizona [2], among others), and programming comparisons, have been offered as available options.

To participate in the Second Home program, families or individuals can apply to be hosts; applications are followed by a background check and home visit. During the home visits, potential hosts are challenged to think critically about what hosting a student might look like and are encouraged to consider what their own healthy boundaries might look like, including describing their preferences for sharing a home. Once a host has applied and is approved, the wait begins for referral of a specific youth from a McKinney-Vento liaison. Similarly, prospective host home youth complete applications and participate in interviews in which youth reflect on their needs for housing. They are then offered the opportunity to meet with potential hosts and begin the preliminary conversation about living together. If all goes well, both student and host are offered a reflective 24-hour period after which host can offer space to a student and a student can accept or decline the offer. Once a student and host are connected and a living agreement has been mediated through a local dispute resolution center, there is follow up and engagement relating to the student’s professional development and subsequent housing needs as they evolve and grow through educational success.

We believe and have found that students who are safely supported in “home-like” environments fare far better in school: one local host home program boasts a 95% graduation rate of its participating students compared to Oregon’s statewide average of 53%. For this purpose, “home-like” references degrees of student integration within respective host home environments. Those degrees of integration are part of agreements negotiated prior to actual housing through conversation between local dispute resolution centers, the potential host home, and respective youth.

Why is it important to enhance promotion of the host homes in Oregon? Do you have additional goals beyond promotion of host homes?

In spite of Oregon’s large number of unaccompanied homeless youth, the funding dedicated for use toward the typical runaway and homeless youth (RHY) population remains consistently low, at approximately $3.575 million per biennium. This population was also largely overlooked in the recently released statewide housing plan and statewide shelter study[3] (foster youth were specifically referenced as a population service gap, but not the larger RHY population).

Additionally, Oregon’s approach to issues of housing and homelessness is in considerable flux, ranging from statewide policy-making, data review, and programming redesign to localized, grassroots, and oftentimes regional conversations and collaboration. While the state’s legislature has responded to the expanding housing/unhousing crises with unprecedented amounts of funding and directives for new affordable housing, efforts to address specific issues for homeless and/or unaccompanied youth ages 12 to 24 remain largely off the radar.

The Oregon State Partnerships Project’s primary goal has been to increase the high school graduation rate of students experiencing homelessness. The Oregon Department of Education and the SUSHI team has worked to address this goal by expanding awareness of and opportunities for building and supporting host homes and supportive programs in a minimum of six statewide locations; creating a more uniform data collection platform for McKinney-Vento liaisons; and increasing local community collaborations between school districts, dispute resolution centers, housing providers, and others.

What are your goals for your regional host home forums? How did you decide which communities to visit?

The host home forums were scheduled concurrent with the fall regional McKinney-Vento liaison and foster care points of contact trainings; many attendees stayed for all three presentations. The primary goals for these forums were to increase awareness of the host home concept generally; to begin noting inventory of any existing programming, whether informal or formal; and to better understand continuing homeless student service gaps. As identified in the state’s previously referenced Shelter Study (see footnote 5), currently only 436 beds statewide are held solely for unaccompanied youth; school year 2018-2019 numbers counted 3,704 unaccompanied homeless students.

The primary goals for these forums were to increase awareness of the host home concept generally; to begin noting inventory of any existing programming, whether informal or formal; and to better understand continuing homeless student service gaps.

Choosing the most appropriate – and initial – communities to visit came down to two primary goals: connecting host home information to areas potentially interested in expanding the Second Home model specifically, and ensuring the greatest information-sharing across very rural locations (often with shared populations and even shared resources) with general host home models and practices. By including state agencies (OHCS and Department of Human Services) we sought to carry these messages beyond the initial scope of our plan. Ultimately, a strong interest of this team has been to draft recommended processes to provide information and coordination of resources on a regular basis, and to be ready to assist with programming development at whatever level communities might support.

In addition to the statewide forums conducted through December 2019, the SUSHI team looks forward to scheduling additional community conversations as requested. We presented at the state homeless coalition conference in September 2019 and at the state migrant conference in November 2019. This month (January 2020), SchoolHouse Connection’s Patricia Julianelle will serve as a presenter for the Oregon Association on Comprehensive Education Liaison Symposium in Seaside, Oregon. Ms. Julianelle will also serve as keynote speaker during a final SUSHI convening event planned in the Willamette Valley immediately preceding the symposium. It is during this final event where lessons learned from our grant efforts and recommendations for next steps will be shared and discussed.

What were some of your key takeaways after the forums, and is there anything you will do differently in the future?

Key takeaways from the forums: host homes are already a known and popular strategy in many if not most Oregon communities, though they are usually organically developed and receive limited formal support. That said, coordinated training and support (i.e. having a statewide lead and the structure provided by regional teams) are desperately needed and would be welcomed. We would like to schedule follow-up visits to some communities to address secondary interests (i.e. supporting McKinney-Vento liaisons and RHY providers in sharing concerns and successful strategies with school and community leaders). Additionally, we have determined that the range of potential invitees should extend beyond McKinney-Vento liaisons; for example, we learned that one community’s fire department chief already provides shelter for unaccompanied youth and that 211 information regarding homeless services would serve as a great informational resource during telephonic intake conversations with families and youth. Finally, we confirm that local emergency youth shelters and supportive programming (including transitional living programs), where located, must continue to be part of any conversation adding host home concepts into the continuum of relevant services. 

As for what we could do differently, we’d like to deepen our prepared presentations and provide opportunities for more organic sharing amongst attendees. We also need to note locations statewide of operating host home programs (where applicable) and collect more specific information about currently connected partners and where partnering gaps exist. We can also start to consider the possibility of the next iteration of this grant, including the building out of our network/learning cohort that was originally intended to develop the initial bones of a statewide plan.


[1] https://www.oregon.gov/ode/schools-and-districts/grants/esea/mckinney-vento/pages/default.aspx; various reports

[2] https://www.pointsourceyouth.org/host-homes; https://www.mason-co-host.org/what-we-do; http://hycaz.org/

[3] https://www.oregon.gov/ohcs/ISD/RA/Oregon-Statewide-Shelter-Study.pdf; https://www.oregon.gov/ohcs/pages/oshp.aspx.

Five Questions with Sheri Hanni and Adrianne Watkins: Supporting Chronically Absent Students in Rural Communities

Sheri Hanni

Sheri Hanni is the K-12 Program Coordinator for the Butte County Office of Education’s (BCOE) Student Attendance Review Board (SARB). Having worked for BCOE for 25 years, she also serves as the county lead for the Multi-Tiered System of Support state-wide initiative and as a Coordinated District Support (CDS) Team member, which provides training, coaching, and support primarily to districts qualifying for Differentiated Assistance due to low ratings on the State Dashboard.

Adrianne Watkins is a Case Manager for the BCOE’s Homeless Education Program. She has worked for BCOE for six-and-a-half years, providing support to students and their families who are experiencing homelessness and/or have entered the SARB process. Her primary role is to advocate for the educational rights of homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and to provide case management support to students. She serves as a liaison between the family and the school systems, ensuring that educational needs are met, linking families with local resources, and helping to identify and address barriers to attendance.

Butte County is located in rural northern California, approximately 80 miles north of Sacramento. It is comprised of 13 school districts serving 33,000 students, four of which are single-school districts primarily located in the foothills of Butte County. Approximately 62% of the student population is identified as low socio-economic status, and 2.5% of students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year. BCOE’s homeless education program provides direct services to approximately 500 students each year.  

What are some of the unique needs of your district? How do these unique needs affect student attendance?

Sheri: Butte County, like many rural areas, is impacted by high rates of unemployment, single-parent households, and poverty–often generational poverty. Butte County has also been identified as having the highest rate of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) in the state. There is a lack of mental health providers as well as a shortage of medical doctors serving our area. Many of our families do not have a regular doctor, so if a child is ill, they often spend a great deal of time waiting in emergency rooms or drop-in clinics–which leads them to miss time at school. Even when mental health and medical services are available, transportation is a barrier for many families. 

We often hear from families that they have one working vehicle or limited money for gas. If someone has an appointment, they need to do all their errands and shopping that same day—which means that the whole family needs to go. If parents cannot finish their errands and appointments in time to pick up their kids from school, the children don’t attend school that day. Or, if the kids miss the bus, they don’t go to school. We have students with mental health challenges who have anxiety about attending school. On especially difficult days, parents can struggle to get their kids to school, resulting in missed days. Many of our families have a lack of trust in school staff, often due to their own school experience, so they may not communicate challenges that prevent them from getting their kids to school, or getting the support they need.

ALL school staff need training on how to identify when a student may be experiencing trauma or a mental health challenge and how to communicate in a caring, supportive way. Many districts provide trauma-sensitive training to all staff, including classified personnel such as bus drivers, food service staff, campus supervisors, etc. This has been beneficial in identifying when a student may need additional help. Because challenging behaviors often appear during unstructured time during the school day, training ALL staff can make the difference for children.

Chronic Absenteeism in Butte County
Chronic Absenteeism in Butte County

In your district, how do you identify students experiencing homelessness who are chronically absent? Do you collaborate with your district’s homeless education liaison–and, if so, how?

Adrianne: I think chronic absence is an early indicator to school staff that prompts student check-ins, often revealing housing instability in the process. In collaboration with targeted case managers, student advocates, and district homeless liaisons, students who are identified as homeless through early intervention are then referred to our program. Our homeless education program is able to provide supportive services to mitigate attendance concerns by assisting with transportation (e.g. providing gas cards, bus passes, or advocating for district transportation). For any students who were not initially identified through this process, they are eventually identified through the School Attendance Review Board (SARB) process.  

The School Attendance Review Board is a panel of representatives from schools and community agencies that regularly hold meetings with families of students showing attendance concerns in order to provide support and interventions to alleviate barriers to attendance.  I have the opportunity to attend the SARB meetings for our districts, giving me the chance to participate in the collaborative efforts to establish a plan for successful attendance. 

Families often disclose their homelessness for the first time at the SARB hearings, as their living situation is often self-reported as a contributing factor to the attendance issues. We often hear that an eviction left a family displaced, living outside of the district boundary lines, either living in a shelter or a temporary living arrangement, or a domestic violence situation that has forced a parent and their child(ren) to relocate to another city in order to access confidential, emergency shelter. In these scenarios, the SARB panel works to link the family with supportive services on the spot, such as establishing a transportation plan in order to keep the student in their school of origin, placing a referral for counseling services, and ensuring that the family is able to leave the meeting with resources in hand for housing programs, food assistance, and other basic needs.

 A specific case that comes to mind is that of a mother who escaped a domestic violence situation and had to seek emergency shelter 25 miles away from her child’s school. There was not much time left in the school year, so enrolling in the local school did not seem to be in the child’s best interest, nor was the daily commute feasible for the parent at the time. With close collaboration between our office and the school district, I was able to advocate for a temporary independent study arrangement to allow her child to complete the school year successfully. I picked up the paperwork from the school site, delivered it to the family at their new location, returned completed paperwork, and also submitted the completed school work on behalf of the family, since they were without reliable transportation at the time. This arrangement promoted school stability for the child.

In your experience, what are some of the most common causes of chronic absence for students experiencing homelessness?

Adrianne: Frequent moves. The current housing crisis in our community, paired with the lack of shelter facilities and affordable housing, often means that displaced families find themselves living “doubled-up” (i.e. couch surfing, or staying temporarily with other people). This can leave students living outside of their school district, and, in a rural area, far from services and support. The students that I work with also often experience multiple moves throughout the school year. For example, I worked with a student who was entering the 7th grade with a cumulative file that reflected 14 different school changes. This is a testament to how challenging it can be for families to be able to continue to access their child’s school with each unexpected and abrupt move that they may experience. When they are unaware of their rights to school of origin and transportation support, they often end up enrolling their child in the nearest school for the sake of accessing the school bus or being able to walk or bike to campus.  Families that experience frequent moves often find themselves in situations where a common issue such as car trouble can leave their child unable to access school for days at a time, as they are so far away from the campus, support systems, and public transit options.

Berry Creek School, one of four school-single districts, located in the foothills of Butte County, approximately 25 miles from Oroville, the nearest town. It serves approximately 60 students in multi-grade classrooms.

Sheri: These frequent moves also make it difficult for families to access or maintain support services.  Some of our service providers close cases if they cannot contact the family or don’t receive calls back.  This, combined with transportation challenges, often results in families being dropped from services and having to restart the application process. 

What strategies, programs, or policies do you use to enable consistent attendance? Do you leverage data in any way?

Sheri: We regularly provide education to school staff on policies related to the education of homeless students. Our Student Attendance Review Boards include school and community representatives who understand the challenges unique to students experiencing homelessness and are willing to provide whatever support is needed for students to be successful in the school setting. One advantage of being rural is that we are familiar with each other and our programs so we can easily collaborate on behalf of our students and families. It is often the relationships that make a difference. Our School Ties program provides case management to homeless students and families and works closely with all of our districts and schools. The Coordinated District Support Team provides training and coaching around student behavior, including positive alternatives to suspension such as a focus on social-emotional learning, mental wellness, trauma-responsive practices, student-staff relationships, and more. We customize support for districts based on their data. 

County Office of Education, School Ties.

California has a statewide data system, the California Dashboard, that provides easily accessible data on student groups in the areas of academics, behavior, and chronic absence. Many of our schools participate in the California Healthy Kids Survey, which provides additional data on school culture. Our work with districts and sites is focused on systems and the use of data to identify root causes of barriers for students. When we can better identify the root cause of a challenge, we can better select the appropriate supports and interventions that will bring positive change for all students–especially our most vulnerable student groups.

Recognizing that there’s no silver bullet, what is your “top tip” for supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?

Sheri: In my experience as a County Office of Education Coordinator, we see the greatest success when we can assist schools and/or districts with implementing changes that are focused on the identified needs of our students. The biggest celebration of the past year or so has probably been witnessing the shift in mindset of so many educators in how we perceive and respond to students who are struggling. 

Oftentimes, students don’t want to say that they are homeless–but when educators understand the specific struggles and indicators, they can intervene in non-judgmental, supportive ways that respect the students’ confidentiality and show them that there are people who will help. 

I am proud to work with so many who go above and beyond for our homeless students, and all who are facing barriers to education.  It’s hard work, but together I believe we are making a difference for young people in Butte County.

Adrianne: From the case management perspective, I would emphasize the importance of fostering connection, collaboration, and competency in homeless students’ rights.

In my experience, students and parents are so fearful of revealing their housing status. Many parents have disclosed to me their fear of losing their children to protective services if they were to simply admit to being homeless. Perhaps this perpetuates a disconnect between the school and the family in such cases, where outreach services are triggered due to attendance concerns, yet a parent is resistant to engage in services out of fear of the consequences of disclosing their homelessness. I think it is so critical that rapport is established with parents, and that the school culture leaves a parent feeling safe enough to disclose their living situation and to ask for support. Imagine if all families could start out the school year feeling comfortable enough to communicate their situation and establish connections with school staff from Day One. We can’t support our students appropriately if we aren’t aware of their situation. Once fully aware, we can “meet them where they’re at.”  

I truly believe that connection and collaboration can make a difference in a child returning to school or not. For instance, when a family that does not have a personal vehicle or a working phone and lives outside of public transit access, it just takes one staff member who has rapport with the student and is aware of their living situation to advocate for district transportation so that the child can access school no matter where they may be staying.

I would also emphasize the importance of ensuring competency in the protections in place under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Although I am one person at the county level with the role of advocating for homeless students, I could not do my job without the assistance of dedicated school staff. Their connection with their students, their insights into their situations, and their commitment to advocate for their students and go above and beyond to assist students in each unique situation is what makes the difference. This could look very different if staff were not well-versed in homeless student rights. The better we train all our campus staff, the earlier our homeless students are identified, provided with supportive services, and informed of their education rights. The more awareness and support that is available, the less powerful the stigma becomes.

2/12/20 – Truancy v. Chronic Absenteeism: Supporting the Attendance of Students Experiencing Homelessness

Title: Truancy v. Chronic Absenteeism: Supporting the Attendance of Students Experiencing Homelessness

Almost 8 million students were chronically absent from schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Unsurprisingly, research shows that economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be chronically absent than the overall student population—but studies also indicate that students experiencing homelessness are chronically absent at rates even higher than their housed, low-income peers. While chronic absenteeism measures total absences, including excused and unexcused, truancy measures only unexcused absences–and the number of unexcused absences it takes for a student to be considered a “truant” differs by state. While it’s important to distinguish between truancy and chronic absence, communities that are successfully serving homeless students who are truant OR chronically absent are finding that supportive, community-driven efforts are most effective. During this webinar, two practitioners will speak about their work supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness–one from the school community perspective, and one from the community at large.

Presenters:

  • Katie Brown, Program Manager, Education Leads Home, SchoolHouse Connection
  • Tamara Vaughn-Walker, Juvenile Justice Council Coordinator, St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office
  • Rose Taphouse, Lansing School District Student Services Coordinator, Lansing School District, MI
  • Tina Giarla, Program Director, MA Coalition for the Homeless

Identifying Students Experiencing Homelessness: How Small Changes in Email Communications Can Achieve Big Results, Part III

Dana Malone is the State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth within the New Mexico Public Education Department’s (PED) Student Success and Wellness Bureau. Here, she writes about New Mexico’s experience implementing a behaviorally-informed email communications project developed by the Office of Evaluation Sciences. You can read about the development of the project in Part I of this blog here, and about New York State’s experience implementing the project in Part II of the blog here.

What did your participation in the project look like?

I have been working towards improving our identification of students experiencing homelessness in New Mexico for several years and this project came along at the perfect time for me, as ESSA had just become effective.  I heard about this opportunity during a State Coordinator webinar and thought, “What do I have to lose?” I was certain that no one read my emails in detail, no matter how much I bolded, highlighted, italicized, and underlined things.   

  • In the 2017-2018 school year, the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) asked for certain information (LEA homeless student counts, challenges, current housing questionnaire, etc.) so that they could determine which LEAs would receive the intended emails.  
  • We agreed to work on helping LEAs and Homeless Liaisons access supportive resources and helping homeless students apply for higher education. The OES crafted six messages related to resources and two pertaining to higher education that we released regularly throughout the year.   
  • I noticed right away how friendly and easy to read the emails were. The “regular, concise, action-oriented emails” were very different than the “way too much information” messages that are traditionally sent out. 
  • I received positive feedback immediately from LEAs–some from whom I had never heard before. 

How did you determine that identification of students experiencing homelessness was the issue you wanted to address with this initiative?

Under-identification has always been my biggest challenge as the State Coordinator for a few reasons:

  • New Mexico is the second poorest state and, as of 2018, has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the nation. Census data show that 30 percent of New Mexico’s children are living in poverty, but because the poverty threshold for that figure is so low (around $20,000 a year for a family of three and about $25,000 for a family of four), “the percentage of children who struggle with poverty-induced stress on a day-to-day basis is certainly higher.” 
  • New Mexico is also very culturally diverse. The population is 47% Hispanic/Latino and 10% Native American. This includes 23 tribes and 19 pueblos, which are all distinct and represent sovereign nations.  
  • Both populations tend to live in multigenerational living situations.  Many of these families live in housing or communities that lack basic physical structures and facilities (i.e. buildings, roads, utilities).  This is the norm for many New Mexico families, making “doubled-up” and “inadequate housing” very difficult to tease out. 
  • When this project began, only about half of the LEAs statewide were reporting students experiencing homelessness.  

The PED requires all LEAs to submit their data for every program every 40 days for review. The LEAs do not receive any of their funding until all data has been submitted and validated by PED staff. This allows the PED to evaluate the effectiveness of EHCY programs, determine LEA technical assistance needs, and plan monitoring reviews. The implementation of ESSA required me to improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness in my state, so I was willing to try all of the best practices I had been taught over the years. Participating in this pilot project was just one of many strategies that we implemented to improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness. Other strategies included: 

  • Requiring the use of Kickstand for all professional development for homeless liaisons; all liaisons must pass with an 80% proficiency rate;
  • Providing guidance, resources, and templates of policies and forms on the PED website;  and 
  • Contacting homeless liaisons from LEAs not reporting students experiencing homelessness and providing targeted technical assistance until they do start reporting.

What were the results and what did you learn?

Compared to the other pilot states (New York and New Jersey), this project was most effective in New Mexico–but we aren’t really sure why yet. I suspect that it was effective because it was an extremely different communication style than what LEAs were used to receiving from the PED. The messages were personalized, friendly, and concise. They were also visually pleasing and gave homeless liaisons and superintendents action steps that were truly doable. 

We started implementing all of these strategies during the 2017-2018 school year and now have 25 more LEAs reporting students experiencing homelessness!  I feel that that is very significant! One example is Espanola Public Schools, which was on my radar because they had not reported students experiencing homelessness since 2009.  I knew that could not be correct because, prior to my position as the State Coordinator, I ran a youth emergency shelter in Santa Fe and had dozens of youth from Espanola stay there every year.  

Espanola was included in the OES project, which is where this adventure began!  From there:

  • They selected the perfect person as the homeless liaison, Anna Vargas Gutierrez;
  • Anna took the Kickstand course, received targeted assistance from me, and implemented an ECHY program in that district;
  • In the 2017-2018 school year, Espanola Public Schools went from identifying 0 students experiencing homelessness to 55 students;  
  • They received the ECHY sub-grant in 2018 and obtained the funds they needed to improve and expand their program to include six additional site liaisons; 
  • They reported 123 students experiencing homelessness in 2018-2019, and the number keeps rising;  
  • They are part of the Northern New Mexico Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) and used their new data to justify opening a street outreach program in their community! They do amazing work and I couldn’t be more proud of them. 

What are your recommendations for others who are interested in implementing these principles in their outreach?

Don’t be afraid to try new things and let go of ineffective practices! The information that we receive at our conferences, meetings, webinars, etc. is provided to us for a reason. 

The opportunity with OES sounded interesting and, like I said earlier, I literally had nothing to lose from trying new techniques. Even small changes like personalizing the emails really seemed to make a huge difference. I still try to use what I learned in this pilot project when sending out communications and I promise that those are better received than when I am forced to return to the more formal PED communication style. 

My advice is to try it – what do you have to lose? 

What was the most challenging part of this project, and what was easier than you anticipated?

Learning how to use mail merge was by far the hardest part of this project, but it was worth learning–and relearning, and relearning! This summer, I created a series of messages for the 2019-2020 school year that incorporate the techniques learned from this project. Recently, Northern New Mexico was awarded the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program grant. We plan to use the same techniques learned from the OES in those messages as well.  We feel that this approach will be especially helpful in this region.

11/13/19 – Homelessness and Chronic Absenteeism in Rural Communities

Title: Homelessness and Chronic Absenteeism in Rural Communities

Almost 8 million students were chronically absent from schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Unsurprisingly, research shows that economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be chronically absent than the overall student population—but studies also indicate that students experiencing homelessness are chronically absent at rates even higher than their housed, low-income peers. In many rural communities across the country, homeless students experience a unique set of challenges getting to school regularly and on time. During this webinar, we’ll talk with county-level education practitioners about those unique challenges in rural communities, as well as the resources provided to address barriers to attendance and collaborative strategies to support positive attendance for students experiencing homelessness.

Presenters:

  • Sheri Hanni – Student Attendance Coordinator
  • Meagan Meloy – Director, BCOE School Ties and Prevention Services

11/12/19 – Be Attentive to Attendance: How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Students Experiencing Homelessness

Title: Be Attentive to Attendance: How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Students Experiencing Homelessness

Students who miss 10 percent or more of days enrolled are defined as chronically absent–including both excused and unexcused absences. When students consistently miss school, it often is a sign of underlying challenges and may indicate a student is experiencing homelessness. How can we use available attendance data to help identify children and youth in crisis? During this webinar, we’ll talk with researchers, program administrators, and a school district homeless liaison about the significance of attendance data for homeless students, how we can turn data into substantive interventions, and trauma-informed supportive strategies at the school and district level.

Presenters:

  • Joseph Angaran, Training Director and National Trainer, Check & Connect, University of Minnesota
  • Jennifer Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate, Poverty Solutions, University of Michigan
  • Sue Lenahan, Middle School Counselor, Homeless Liaison, Big Rapids Public Schools, Big Rapids, MI
  • Katie Brown (facilitator), Program Manager, Education Leads Home, SHC

Five Questions with Tina Marie: How My Education Helped Me Push Through Adversity

Tina Marie is a SchoolHouse Connection Young Leader and the current Director of the A Bed for Every Child program at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, which seeks to provide beds for children who are living in poverty without a bed of their own. Before leading this program, she was the Coalition’s Community Organizer and Legislative Advocate, helping to manage successful public policy campaigns that directly addressed the need to prevent and end homelessness by strengthening state-funded resources for Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents. During this time, Tina Marie often shared her own experiences as a homeless youth at the state and federal level to help identify the needs of youth who are at-risk of or are currently experiencing homelessness. Tina Marie reports, “When I am not adulting, I love the outdoors, volunteering, cooking, and indulging my love for seeing and experiencing new places.”

Why is education important to you?

On a personal level, no matter what chaos was going on in my life (usually out of my control), school was my only constant. My school was a haven: a place that I knew would be in the same state whenever I returned. I could navigate the day-to-day with familiar faces, friends, resources, and constant structure.  

In my previous work with young people, I often drilled down the need to identify education resources and get a young adult matched with any form of schooling–whether that’s completing high school, getting a GED, or even applying to a two- or four-year institution. Why? Because young adults need to continue to enrich their lives with education. Resourceful young adults who are at-risk or currently experiencing homelessness are arguably  “street smart,” but a formal education is another tool to use to open doors for their future. Education is not one-size-fits-all, either. But further education in whatever it is you have already obtained will never harm you. I use my street savviness all the time, such as my intuition, my people-reading skills, and my ability to achieve my goals using often “non-traditional” means. But in a society that heavily relies on a completed education as a nonnegotiable,  I am grateful that I have an education–an education that allows me to have a seat at the table. I do not believe I would have the same opportunities without it. 

When I started to invest in myself, my teachers increasingly did the same. When I showed up or went the extra mile, they did, too. I showed appreciation and they rewarded me. That C- student climbed to C, then a B-, and then parked herself at a strong B. I became the president of various school clubs and participated in athletics, too.

In your experience, what are some of the most common causes of chronic absence for students experiencing homelessness? 

Chronic absence amongst at-risk youth or youth who are experiencing homelessess is driven by many factors. In my experience, transportation was a leading cause–but other factors included lack of clothing that allows you to fit in with your peers, or challenges with personal hygiene. When you’re young, your peers can be ruthless and often lacking empathy, so it is hard to look past the superficiality of new, hip (or even just clean) clothes, shoes, and squeaky clean hygiene. For females, the lack of free hygiene products is a huge burden because even schools that provide them sometimes require students to actively reach out to an administrator or other adult–and that can be embarrassing.

Can you please share examples of how educators helped you while you were experiencing chronic absence and homelessness?

While I was experiencing homelessness in high school, it was hard to get to school—period. I missed a lot of school in K-8, too. When I did attend school, I felt the frustration of my educators and I did not care whatsoever: detentions, referrals, and lots of “attitude.” I was coping horribly. Each day was hard. Holding myself accountable was tough. After my father passed away and throughout my mother’s incarcerations, I was left to survive alongside a family that did not care for me adequately. I relied on distant relatives, friends’ families, a teacher, and my guidance counselor. At different periods of my life, they dished out whatever they could: rides, meals, clothing, love, lots of guidance, and, at the most trying times, a home. At my lowest point, I had missed a large portion of high school, mostly due to lack of transportation but also by choice. 

I fought to separate myself from the environment I was raised in, and I slowly realized that I was truant and that my grades were average—but that my opportunity to leave my past behind me was not based on the job I maintained or how much distance I put between me and my toxic family. So, one day I decided to show up. Believe me, it was hard to show up. Especially having a reputation in school as a student that didn’t care. A chronically absent student. A student that may not have “what it takes.”

When I started to invest in myself, my teachers increasingly did the same. When I showed up or went the extra mile, they did, too. I showed appreciation and they rewarded me. That C- student climbed to C, then a B-, and then parked herself at a strong B. I became the president of various school clubs and participated in athletics, too. Just as the opportunity to go to college became promising, a local program called HEAT arrived at my school and the stars aligned. The HEAT program (jointly funded by the McKinney-Vento Act, Title I, and local school district funds) provided educational and social work services which helped bridge the gap to apply for college. The program identified scholarships available to low-income students who faced adversity and helped me apply for FAFSA. HEAT also created a campaign that turned into a trust to help with any college costs that may not be covered. There were nice people in my hometown who generously invested in my future.

Adversity differs person to person. All that anyone needs to remember is that tomorrow is a brand-new day and, as long as your feet and your head are facing forward, you continue pushing yourself that way, too. 

What do you wish teachers or other people at school had done to help you while you were experiencing homelessness?

I wish there were an educational service or even an orientation that outlined the services the school provided that included students. In my experience, I attended a grade-specific orientation each year that welcomed students and explained the expectations for students. I wish those orientations had also explained the expectations that we should have had for staff and educators. Having an auditorium full of excited new students is the perfect time to talk about access to contraceptives, health care, free lunch, a food pantry, a closetful of age-appropriate clothing, shoes, hygiene products, grief counseling, mental health resources, and community resources and programs. I believe students will be more proactive in asking for help knowing that what they need already exists. When I felt cherry-picked because of my need or socioeconomic status, I pushed back more–I wanted to blend in and hide, and ultimately that hindered my education and overall well-being.

Once I was given the tools to empower and advocate for myself, I felt the fruits of my labor. I began to embrace what made me who I am. I knew I was strong-willed and resilient, and I was no longer ashamed to have come from the depths of homelessness and poverty. I learned to put my pride aside and began to ask for guidance proactively. I was honest about my educational shortcomings and I began to reach out for my teachers because they made it clear that they were lifelong educators who were in it not for the pay, but to make a difference. Without fail, they began to reach back. 

Nearly 10 years later, my life changed for the better. It did not unfold effortlessly. I found my voice. I questioned everything good and bad and advocated for myself constantly. I trusted my instincts. I advocated for others who were marginalized or voiceless. I found a healthy balance between survival mode and enjoying life as a young adult whose world is showered by sunlight and not rain. 

What words of wisdom do you have for practitioners and students who want to advocate for themselves and their peers?

Adversity differs person to person. All that anyone needs to remember is that tomorrow is a brand-new day and, as long as your feet and your head are facing forward, you continue pushing yourself that way, too. 

I hope that whoever reads this continues to fight for youth who have been silenced: youth who are marginalized because of their gender identities, sexual orientation, the color of their skin, the area they are from–or youth who are simply facing the devastating consequences of choices that were not their own. 

It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Our communities are being nickel and dimed to access basic human rights, such as the right to access adequate and affordable housing, healthcare, and education. No one should ever fall victim to a system that is not working fast enough toward removing barriers to resources like accessible housing, healthcare, job training, and education. How great is our nation if, during the 2016-2017 school year, public schools identified over 1.3 million children and youth experiencing homelessness, from preK through high school? 

Please vote with your conscience in every election.

Five Questions with Debbie DiAnni: Building Support Through Empathy, Relationships, and Data

Debbie DiAnni is the McKinney-Vento Liaison and Foster Care Point of Contact, as well as a non-public school tutor, for the School City of Hammond in Hammond, Indiana. The district has nineteen schools–all of which are Title I schools–including twelve elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, two middle/high schools, and an Area Career Center housing Area Career Center University. The School City of Hammond enrolls approximately 13,000 students, 175 of which have been identified as experiencing homelessness. In her many roles, Debbie serves students experiencing homelessness, those placed with the Indiana Department of Family Services, and those placed in non-public schools due to academic struggles. She has worked in Hammond for the last thirteen years and is starting her fourth year as the McKinney-Vento Liaison. Says Debbie, “I enjoy how many of the staff work together to help our students be the best they can be.”

What is one of the most helpful strategies you have learned in a training?

One?!? Hmm…probably learning how to talk to families and students who are experiencing homelessness by coming from a place of empathy, but not pity. I never say they are homeless: I refer to my families as being displaced from permanent housing or temporarily without permanent housing. This came from a training where we were listening to a mother and family speak about their journey in and out of homelessness.  It really opened my eyes to just how pervasive the problem of homelessness is; often by no fault of their own, families find themselves without a home. 

I’ve worked in education for over 20 years but I’ve always been more on the teaching side of things. If anyone had asked me years ago what homelessness looks like, I would have said, “Someone living in an abandoned building or on the street.” I thought that they must have done something to end up there. Families who are experiencing homelessness are not often broadcasting it, so I felt like I had never really met anyone who was homeless. I was uncertain how to approach them, not wanting to offend them. By listening to families’ stories, I began to understand that they wanted no less for their children than what every parent wants.   

What is your most successful community partnership? 

I have two very successful partnerships: one is with a local domestic violence shelter. We have a fabulous working relationship and rely on each other for many things. I am able to assist them with clothing, transportation, and school supplies, and on occasion they have been able to help place a family or student in their shelter that we identify through the district as needing services. They also help me to better understand the agencies that serve our families and how to access things like copies of birth certificates.

Another highly successful community partnership that has evolved over the past three years is with our Township office. They want to be able to assist the most vulnerable students, and I refer many families to them for a variety of needs. For example, the Township office has the ability to provide temporary emergency housing for families that have experienced fires. Last year, the office provided vouchers to a local motel for three of my families that had nowhere to go after they lost their home. This allowed one of the families to have a place to stay until their insurance kicked in. With the other two families, it gave them sufficient time to figure out what their next step would be. They have also been helpful with some of my unaccompanied youth. In one instance, the Township office was able to get a youth placed into a shelter after she had been kicked out of her home. Recently, I had a mom who needed legal assistance, and I had no idea where to refer her for her need. The Township office was able to give me the name and number of a lawyer for her who does work on a sliding scale.  

Can you give us some examples of how you use data at the district level to better serve students experiencing homelessness?

As I launch my fourth year as McKinney-Vento Liaison, the data from the past three years helps me plan for the future. We have nineteen schools in our district, and I have noticed that some schools have identified greater numbers of students experiencing homeless than others. Looking forward, I want to implement some building-level supports for students at those locations. For example, my goal is to train one person in each building to meet with students on a regular basis (weekly or bi-weekly) just to check in with them, see how things are going, etc. I’m hoping that by fostering this relationship with someone at the school, the students see the need to stay in school and develop an understanding of how important school can be for them. I learned long ago in my classroom that students thrive when they have a good relationship with you. Many students who are identified as McKinney-Vento do not have those relationships and are less likely to value school.  

I have also noticed that we need to do a better job of getting our homeless seniors to graduate.  I’m hoping that, by implementing building-level supports, we can improve the graduation rate of our students experiencing homelessness and help them either enter a trade, the workforce, or move on to college. This idea came to me in a two-fold kind of way. A few years ago, I was at a Title I conference and I heard a speaker who was working under a grant she had written to be able to meet regularly with a group of foster care students in her district. I really liked her idea of checking in with the students. Then I realized that a staff member at one of our high schools was unofficially doing just that with a student experiencing homelessness. She had a direct connection to the students. They could drop into her office at any time, or schedule a time to meet. She was able to build a relationship with several of my unaccompanied youth. One such instance was with a young lady who had left her home due to safety issues and moved in with a friend. The staff member would regularly see her and ask how things were going. All of a sudden, the student stopped showing up at school. The staff member reached out to find out what was going on, and learned that she had had a disagreement with the friend and had to leave. The student had no choice but to move in with someone in another town and could not get to school. Because the staff member proactively reached out and discovered the problem early on, we were able to provide transportation to and from her new location before the student missed too much school. This allowed her to finish school and graduate on time with her peers.

I’ve worked in education for over 20 years but I’ve always been more on the teaching side of things. If anyone had asked me years ago what homelessness looks like, I would have said, “Someone living in an abandoned building or on the street.” I thought that they must have done something to end up there. Families who are experiencing homelessness are not often broadcasting it, so I felt like I had never really met anyone who was homeless. I was uncertain how to approach them, not wanting to offend them. By listening to families’ stories, I began to understand that they wanted no less for their children than what every parent wants. 

What do you consider your biggest barrier in helping homeless students?

Identifying homeless students, hands down, is our biggest barrier. Our district is in an urban area with over 80% of our students receiving free and reduced lunch. In a district with 13,000 students, I know we have many more students experiencing homelessness than we are identifying. If I cannot identify them identifying them, I cannot support them. This under-identification shows a need for me to provide better training to the district employees whom our families and students first contact. I have some schools that still don’t believe they have “homeless” students and do not or will not reach out to me for help. 

With just around 2,000 employees district-wide, I think the best training is targeted to the different jobs in our district. The training that I provide to a registrar or secretary is not going to look like what I use with food service. While I like to make trainings interactive, time constraints mean that I have to keep it simple.  My favorite is randomly giving attendees a color (could be on name tag or a Post-It) and calling out a color to move periodically with one color moving the most often. It isn’t entirely clear to the audience what is happening, but slowly you can see everyone begin to understand that this activity represents the frequent and ongoing movement that our homeless families face. Those with the most called color represent our homeless families who need to move, often with little notice, to collect their things and find a new place.  

 I also like the game “Spent” if I have a little more time in the training, because it helps staff better understand the ongoing struggles that our families face. It is an online game about surviving poverty and homelessness where players must make the difficult decisions necessary to live for one month on $1,000, often having to choose between equally disagreeable options. We launched an online registration system this year and I’m hoping this will help identify students more accurately. Most of the children enrolling in our schools are students returning to the same school. With returning students, our district doesn’t check residency each year–they may check it every two or three years. Parents complete the registration paperwork and use their old address. This works until they are asked to provide proof of residency. It is often at that time we learn about a family’s housing status. By incorporating online enrollment, we were able to include a residency survey where families answer a couple of simple questions. Their answers help us determine whether we need to meet with them to determine if they are McKinney-Vento eligible.  

What is one of your greatest accomplishments as a liaison?

I am not one to brag about myself, so this one is a bit harder to answer. I am proud of the relationships I have built with the schools in my district, local community services, and other McKinney-Vento liaisons in my area. This is something that really didn’t exist four years ago. Nurturing relationships with my colleagues has helped me to support families and students in need. It’s easier to do this job when we all come together to support our families and each other. After all, we all want what is best for our students.

My second greatest accomplishment would be creating a better system for my data. When I started, everything was on Excel and the information I kept was very basic. I found that I needed a lot more information than I thought if I wanted to properly serve these families to the best of my ability. I now use Google Sheets, which allows me to access my data no matter where I am. This comes in very handy when I’m away from my office. I include data on program participants, contact information, documents distributed and completed documents received, clothing I’ve given, and transportation requests. I’m always tweaking this to make it work better for me and our students.