Under federal law, homeless students are owed a K-12 education. But it’s always been difficult to deliver on that promise.
There are a lot of reasons why these students struggle.
Poverty in the local community trickles down to affect families, says Lisa Mentesana, executive director of the Beaverton Resource Center, an Oregon-based nonprofit that assists with basic needs. Families experiencing homelessness sometimes disintegrate, she explains, adding, “You see a higher rate of addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, and then you see youth escaping that or leaving it or themselves, [or] their families asking them to leave.”
“You see a lot of heartache,” Mentesana says.
During the pandemic, helping these students became even tougher. The places where the adults tasked with that responsibility (known as McKinney-Vento workers because of the law that funds their jobs) connected with these students, like public libraries, closed down. At the same time, there was greater transience, and in some regions this led to K-12 students just going missing, says Mentesana, who was previously a McKinney-Vento specialist in Beaverton, a community near Portland, Oregon.
Students who might be living in shelters or public housing also couldn’t consistently access school remotely, in part because their access to internet or quiet spaces to complete homework was insufficient.
There’s a lot of concern among educators and public health professionals over the residual trauma of the pandemic on K-12 students, and homeless students bear a lot of that trauma.
These students are also at an increased risk for chronic absenteeism, missing 10 percent — or more — of the school year. That’s one of the primary concerns of those watching these populations of students, according to Lynette Guastaferro, CEO of Teaching Matters, a New York-based nonprofit that tries to expand access to quality instruction.
As many as 37 percent of homeless students are chronically absent, according to a report from the National Center for Homeless Education. But that figure can be higher, such as in Los Angeles Unified School District, where 70 percent of homeless students were chronically absent in 2021-2022.
Some of those students have returned to the classroom. But the Beaverton School District, in the community where Mentesana works, has lost 4,000 students, she calculates based on her conversations with the district. Likely, she estimates, though she can’t know for sure, they have “moved on.” They might have become homeschooled or moved to Oregon’s online academy, she speculates.
The problem is hardly unique to Oregon.
Preventing Students From Disappearing
Housing insecurity in New York has climbed since before the pandemic. By one estimate, there are more than 100,000 homeless students in New York. Many of these students live “doubled up,” in cramped housing that’s considered inadequate, or in a shelter.
That raises unique challenges like getting the students from a shelter to school. During the pandemic’s switch to digital instruction, that also meant preventing students without access to technology or private spaces where they could work from falling behind, Guastaferro of Teaching Matters says.
New York City has some unique problems, too. Schools there are suffering from a migrant crisis. New York City legally has to give shelter to anyone who requests it. Migrants from around the world had journeyed there, only to find that the city had run out of space and was “sheltering” migrants outside. Students from those families, who are at risk for chronic absenteeism, have to learn. And the sudden influx of migrants has made support for multilingual learners even more vital, says Manny Algarin, a senior educational consultant for Teaching Matters.
Guastaferro’s nonprofit claims it has had some success helping New York schools engage chronically absent students by creating an “attendance culture” where schools and families make going to school feel fun and important for kids. Whether students feel like they belong at school is really important for academic achievement or even getting them to show up, she says.
Companies often carefully consider employee engagement, but it’s sometimes difficult for schools, because educators can take the suggestion that the school culture should improve personally, Guastaferro says. But chronic absenteeism can be a sign that students feel disconnected at school. The superintendents and principals Guastaferro talks to are opening up to the idea that focusing on academics to the exclusion of whether the school’s culture feels welcoming to students is missing the point, she adds.
As they consider qualitative information about students’ feelings, those at Teaching Matters also pay close attention to quantitative information. The nonprofit’s system of interventions is highly reliant on New York’s attendance data, Algarin says. That allows the organization to track students before they become habitually absent to try to engage them. For the kind of intervention Teaching Matters performs, the data is “non-negotiable,” he says.
That’s part of a multi-tiered system meant to prevent students from falling off the map or falling so behind in their learning that it permanently stunts their academic growth. It can mean turning school into an achievement game for students, or setting up interventions to make sure students get to class. When districts do this, they see a big improvement, Guastaferro argues.
“The schools that do this well are obsessed with it,” she says.
For some students, giving out attendance awards or shouting out great attendance records over the intercom is enough to motivate them, Algarin says. But chronically absent students, he adds, often need more special intervention to keep them coming through school doors.
One school in New York had success through pizza parties, Guastaferro says. Once the superintendent identified the students who were most absent, mostly kids living in shelters, the district threw pizza parties for a series of weeks. The often-absent students got to decide who was invited. And, Guastaferro says, it turned their attendance numbers around. Guastaferro credits this to the game breaking those student’s isolation by engaging them socially, and giving them a little power. “You’re the king of the pizza party, and you get to decide who’s coming. And that sort of dynamic got kids excited to come,” she says.
“Being a middle schooler is bad enough,” Guastaferro says. “To be a middle schooler who’s living in a homeless shelter, and have to kind of live that experience at school, that’s incredibly socially isolated.”