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What the Latest Federal Research On Homeless Students Means

In January, the National Center for Homeless Education released federal education data revealing that public schools identified 1.5 million children and youth experiencing homelessness in the 2017-2018 school year, an 11-percent increase over the previous school year and the highest number ever recorded nationally.

While the report does not provide an explanation for the increasing numbers, many regions of the country have been impacted by conditions that contribute to homelessness, such as lack of affordable housing, opioid or methamphetamine addiction, and natural disasters. In addition, some school districts have increased efforts to identify children and youth experiencing homelessness, which may account for some of the higher numbers.

Under federal early care, child nutrition and education law, children and youth are considered homeless if they are staying in shelters, cars, motels, or with other people temporarily due to lack of alternatives. Students experiencing homelessness move frequently between living situations in the course of a school year. However, schools keep data only on where students are located when they are first identified as homeless.

According to the 2017-2018 school year data:

  • The number of unsheltered homeless students (cars, parks, streets, etc.) more than doubled between 2016-2017 and 2017-2018, an increase of 104 percent.
  • The number of homeless students staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing decreased by 2 percent.
  • The number of homeless students staying in motels increased by 17 percent.
  • The number of students staying with other people temporarily due to lack of alternatives increased by 9 percent.

The federal data report also highlights the significant barriers to academic success faced by students experiencing homelessness. Graduation and proficiency rates for homeless students are significantly lower than other economically disadvantaged students, demonstrating the negative impact of homelessness on academic achievement over and above poverty. For example:

  • Four-year, on-time state graduation rates for homeless students ranged from 44 percent to 87 percent, while five-year, on-time state graduation rates ranged from 41 percent to 83 percent.
  • Approximately 29 percent of students experiencing homelessness achieved academic proficiency in reading (language arts), 24 percent achieved proficiency in mathematics and 26 percent achieved proficiency in science.

Research shows that not completing high school is the greatest single risk factor for experiencing homelessness as a young person, making education a critical intervention.

Implications for School Transportation

For most children and youth experiencing homelessness, public schools are their best and often only source of support, offering access to basic needs such as food and clothing as well as supportive adults and the education that can change the trajectory of their lives.

Yet homelessness creates numerous barriers to academic success, including high rates of mobility that can lead to disruptive school transfers and cause children and youth to fall further and further behind. Transportation is an essential service, making it possible for homeless students to attend school regularly, experience normalcy, and find their footing in an otherwise traumatic and chaotic time in their lives.

Congress recognized the importance of transportation in stabilizing the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness by enacting strong federal protections in the McKinney-Vento Act. It allows homeless students to stay in their “school of origin” (the school they had been attending when last permanently housed, or the school in which they were last enrolled), if it is determined to be in their best interest. Best interest determinations must be individualized and based on factors related to the child or youth’s education.

Once it has been determined to be in the child’s or youth’s best interest to continue his or her education in their school of origin, transportation must be provided. ESSA also requires agreements between local educational agencies and child welfare agencies on how children in foster care will be transported, when it is in their best interest to stay in their school of origin.

While the mandate to provide children and youth experiencing homelessness with transportation to the school of origin has been in place for nearly two decades, school districts continue to learn new methods about how to implement it efficiently, including analyzing data.

For example, in Nashville, Tennessee, the school district analyzed attendance data at the end of the 2017-2018 school year and found the climbing rate of chronic absenteeism among students experiencing homeless was more than double the rate of housed students. Transportation was the most commonly cited barrier to regular attendance. In response, the district used Title I Part A to hire one staff person to oversee transportation arrangements for McKinney-Vento students. The result was a 7.2 percent decrease in chronic absenteeism of these students at the end of the following year, which persuaded the district to continue a part-time position in the transportation department to continue reducing absences related to transportation.

One particular challenge revealed by the recent federal data report is the decrease in the number of children and youth who are staying in shelters or transitional housing, compared to the large increases in all the other categories of homeless living situations (motel, staying with others, unsheltered).

Children and youth who are staying in more hidden homeless situations are particularly hard to identify and are more mobile. Transporters are in a unique position to help to identify these children and youth by observing and listening to children who talk about staying with others, ask to be let off at different locations, or whose behavior otherwise indicate potential homelessness. Communicating with district or liaison-based staff who can follow up is important to help ensure appropriate identification and services.

Some children and youth experiencing homelessness require special considerations. The definition of school of origin was amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 to include preschools, extending school stability to younger learners, who may find themselves shut out of any early learning if they move to a school district with no preschool opportunities, or where such opportunities are full. Ensuring safe and efficient transportation for preschool children experiencing homelessness requires collaboration and creativity.

Research shows the importance of participation in activity programs in increasing high school graduation rates and later success in life, particularly for disadvantaged students. Yet homelessness also creates significant barriers to participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities. Guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education states that “to the extent that lack of access to transportation is a barrier to extracurricular activities for a particular student, an LEA would be required to provide this student with transportation to or from extracurricular activities.”

Transporters can work with school district homeless liaisons, student activity organizations and others to devise effective ways to ensure that students experiencing homelessness can participate fully in school activities.

Finally, the increased need for transportation for children and youth experiencing homelessness poses financial challenges for school districts. Congress has increased funding for the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program each of the last four fiscal years, for a combined increase of 32 percent, totaling $101.5 million. In addition, ESSA provided school districts with greater flexibility to use Title I Part A funds, including funds reserved for homeless students, to defray the costs of transportation.


Barbara Duffield
Barbara Duffield

Barbara Duffield is the executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization that works to overcome homelessness through education. She is a former director of education for the National Coalition for the Homeless and directed policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the April issue of School Transportation News. 

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