By Amanda Litvinov
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Public schools have made progress in how they support students experiencing homelessness, since the McKinney-Vento Act was passed 30 years ago. Today, every school district has a homeless liaison to arrange academic supports for homeless students and assistance for their families—shelter, food, and transportation—meant to help keep their children in school.
But the first step of identifying homeless students is still difficult, because a child’s instinct is usually to hide an unstable living arrangement, says Jonathan Houston, a homeless liaison for the Tukwila School District in Tukwila, Wash.
“They feel the judgment our society has about people living in poverty, and they don’t want anyone to think their family has done something wrong,” said Houston.
The good news: Federal lawmakers took significant steps to provide more support for homeless students during the reauthorization of the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
The number of homeless children in the United States has doubled since before the recession, with more than 1.3 million homeless students identified in the 2013-14 school year.
About 3 percent of students across the state of Washington are identified as homeless. But Houston has already identified 248 homeless students this year and expects that by year’s end, the percentage of homeless students in his district will again exceed 10 percent.
Sometimes Houston steps in to handle major crises: There was the time he had to scramble to find emergency shelter after discovering a student and his family had been sleeping in their car for a month. On another occasion, he raced to pull a pair of siblings off of a bus after receiving a phone call that their family had suddenly relocated in the course of the school day.
He is diligent about checking in with students, walking the halls to offer a greeting, chat about their day, or make sure they have their books. If they have occasion to speak directly about a student’s homelessness, “I let those students know that their situation is temporary, it’s not who they are,” says Houston.
That’s something he had to remind himself of last year, when his family experienced the affordable housing crisis first hand, and had nowhere to go when they got behind in payments. Houston, a father of two, had recently married a woman who also had two children.
So, the family of six stayed in a hotel room, with other family members, briefly subleased an apartment, then ended up back in a hotel.
Houston recalls having a hard time accepting assistance, even as he added the names of his own children, who are enrolled in the Tukwila School District, to his database of homeless students.
His family’s situation has stabilized, but the experience made him acutely sensitive to how schools approach homeless students. He says educators should focus on showing homeless kids that they believe in their success, and get them invested in it, too.
“If educators can build relationships, kids will open up. Teachers are good at modeling how to connect with others, which is what these kids need,” he says.
Now, thanks to ESSA, districts that have more than 10 unaccompanied youth must identify a staff contact in every school, which Houston can attest provides a better network for handling heavy caseloads.
Also, states must now report achievement markers and graduation rates specifically for homeless students, which will “shine a spotlight on the impact of homelessness and create a baseline from which to assess state and national progress for helping these most vulnerable students,” wrote Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Washington is one of only five states that currently reports those rates separately for homeless students. The graduation rate for homeless students was 30 percentage points lower than the rate for all of the state’s students in 2014, and 20 points lower than the graduation rate of other economically disadvantaged students who did not experience homelessness.
Although his district is recognized for its service to students who are unstably housed, Jonathan Houston worries about the kids who have not yet been identified. And he is haunted by the ones who disappear.
Student are dropped from enrollment after 20 consecutive absences. Tukwila has enrolled 248 homeless students so far this school year, but that number is now down to 210.
“When a student leaves, I wonder where they ended up and can’t help but ask, ‘Did I do a good job?’,” says Houston. “I just wish we would have had one last chance to talk to their families before they went, to see if there was anything else at all that we could do to keep their kids here.”