For homeless students, chronic absenteeism is dismayingly high.

The number of students who regularly miss school has risen since the pandemic, but for homeless students, it’s been especially bad. Even though federal law requires states to provide public education to homeless students, delivering on this has proven troublesome. And getting homeless students to show up to school has been an elusive goal for many districts.

Leaders of a school in San Diego — an area with one of the largest homeless populations in the country — think they have an answer. Monarch School, a public-private K-12 school, is an arrangement between the San Diego County Office of Education and a local nonprofit. It has around 300 students, all of them experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.

Only having students experiencing homelessness creates a sense of community, school leaders argue, removing the stigma of not having a reliable place to call home. It also enables the school to focus on providing tailored social-emotional learning.

So why do critics say the very idea of a school for the homeless is “problematic?”

The McKinney-Vento Act, the federal law overseeing homeless education, bans homeless-only schools as a form of “segregation.”

Monarch School benefits from an exception, making it the only publicly funded separate school for homeless students. That status is in part because powerful lawmakers including Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving senator who died in late September, have supported the school.

Monarch School relies on a community approach to education and social services, emphasizing on-site family programs and resources. For example: The school has on-campus showers, food pantries, licensed clinicians and social programs. It encourages whole families to make use of free housing and health assistance, in part through its parent resource center. When parents, students and families are experiencing trauma, it can be really helpful for them all to show up to one building, says Marisol Alvarado, vice president of programs at Monarch School.

If you ask school leaders, that sets it apart.

Most students are referred to Monarch School through social workers from other institutions, and the school says that’s because of the social programs it offers.

“The emphasis of our work is to provide a safe and socially nurturing place for unhoused students to achieve academic success,” says Afira DeVries, CEO of Monarch School. That means building a standalone community because, she says, it’s hard for students who don’t have homes to be themselves in the mainstream American school system. “It's a bright, beautiful, colorful, joyful place,” DeVries adds.

On a phone call with EdSurge, Monarch School’s CEO said that social-emotional learning was the school’s priority. The students who attend the school go home to shelters, motels or even cars, DeVries says. While the academic part of the work is important, she adds, the students need interventions that will stabilize them so that they learn in the first place. If Monarch School can build emotional resilience in the students, it can set them up to build an academic career, DeVries says.

She also pointed to a research study conducted by the school — with The Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of San Diego — that reported greater feelings of belonging and self-esteem among students. But that study did not track academic outcomes or chronic absence rates.

So does the model work? Are more schools for students experiencing homelessness a good idea?

Monarch School argues that it provides a quality education. The school's rolling average graduation rate for its senior classes, DeVries estimates, is 93 percent. Last year, she adds, the entire senior class graduated. But students there may not be following the typical path. By senior year, the dream is for students to have recovered from the trauma of homelessness and to have transitioned out, according to the school's leadership. The goal is to stabilize students enough to return to traditional schools, DeVries says.

Read the full article about homeless students by Daniel Mollenkamp at EdSurge.