This week, our partners at Schoolhouse Washington released a comprehensive report on the academic outcomes of students experiencing homelessness in Washington state.
While this report verifies the immense challenges that homeless students face and the negative impact instability has on their education, it also includes key findings that can help us support these students in achieving their academic goals. Given that the lack of a high school degree or GED is the single biggest correlative with young adult homelessness, these findings have far reaching implications for advocates and policymakers working in the sector.
The first key takeaway is that students experiencing homelessness who are doubled-up or couch surfing (staying with strangers, friends or extended family due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason) have similarly poor academic outcomes as those students living in hotels/motels, in shelters and unsheltered. This finding is critical, given that the majority of students who experience homelessness, nearly 75 percent, are doubled-up or couch surfing. There is a temptation to treat these students differently than those experiencing “literal” homeless, but this finding shows that, as far as academic outcomes are concerned, doubled-up students require similar levels of support (though maybe not always the same intervention) as those who are in situations more traditionally thought of as homeless.
Another key takeaway from the report: Our efforts to make schools more equitable must consider students’ housing status and the role that race and ethnicity play in housing outcomes. Only 34 percent of students experiencing homelessness are proficient in language arts, and less than a quarter are proficient in math. Less than half of students experiencing homelessness pass all of their courses in the 9th grade. At the same time, we know that students of color are overrepresented in the population of students who experience homelessness, so any effort to eliminate racial opportunity gaps in schools will need to take this intersection into account. Unless we address student homelessness with substantial attention to the historical, systemic and inherent racism of the education system, outcomes for homeless students of color will continue to be worse than for their white peers.
It’s important to note that homelessness is not the same as low-income status—the outcomes for students who are homeless are far worse than their low-income peers. Too many policies have been implemented with the assumption that you can address homeless students’ needs with the same approaches used to assist low-income students. Those policies and practices have proven insufficient for homeless students and will continue to fail until students’ housing status is given proper weight.
The last key takeaway from the report is this: Any strategy to address youth or family homelessness must have schools at the center to be successful. The law requires that all students experiencing homelessness be served by school districts, and that means more than enrollment in and transportation to school. Increasingly, communities are providing comprehensive services in schools, even catching some of these students before they become homeless or connecting youth and their families to housing. For students who lack housing, school may be the only constant, stable presence in their lives, making schools essential for addressing youth and family homelessness.
There is reason for optimism, and that’s never more clear than when you read about the incredible resilience and power of the students themselves, like this in post from Latte Harris. Or when we hear from the educators who work with these students every day, like this post from Bellingham’s Roxana Parise or this video from Pearl Jam and Tukwila’s Nichelle Page. Or when we consider that Washington’s graduation rate for homeless students has risen faster than the rate for other students. There is much work to do, but our community has incredible people supporting homeless students and we’re slowly but surely making progress.
If you’d like to do more to support students experiencing homelessness, connect with Schoolhouse Washington, or, if you are outside of Washington state, with Education Leads Home, to see how you can address student homelessness in your community.