As with most students, when my first-grader leaves school each day she comes home to the same safe place every night. Statistics show that this is likely not the case for at least one of her classmates. One in every 32 students in Washington is identified as homeless, or roughly one per class and 15-20 students per school.
We know that at least 32,000 K-12 students experience homelessness in Washington’s public schools each year, but other reports indicate it is much higher. Roughly half of these students are adolescents in middle and high school, some living with their parents, some living on their own, some sleeping in parks and cars. In other words, at least 16,000 adolescents in our state are navigating this pivotal developmental period while wondering each day where they’ll do their homework, where they’ll sleep that night, and if they’ll be safe.
Not surprisingly, the educational outcomes for these students are unconscionable. Less than half graduate with their peers. They are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled. They are far more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.
The federal government sends Washington state $29 per homeless student per year through the federal McKinney Vento Homeless Education Act—less than the average cost of a backpack, and certainly not enough to begin to address the educational needs of this population. But the news is not all bad.
There is an unprecedented focus by our state and federal governments on the link between homelessness and our public education system. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last month, represents historic achievements on this issue, providing not only additional funding but also significant policy changes intended to improve schools’ interactions with students experiencing homelessness. Additionally, for two straight years, the Washington state legislature has passed bills requiring better analysis of the data on this population, including the overlap with the educational equity gap, school discipline, and academic achievement, among other areas.
Our government partners are beginning to recognize the fact that every student who is homeless is connected to a school, which provides us with a critical and tremendous opportunity to help. Because federal law requires that these students be identified and connected to services, schools represent the single greatest chance to quickly identify youth experiencing homelessness and to intervene early, before they are driven deeper into homelessness and despair.
That’s why the Raikes Foundation is exploring the role schools can play in our recently-refreshed strategy to make youth and young adult homelessness rare in King County, Washington state, and across the country. When teachers, counselors, coaches, and other educators can identify when students are unstably housed, keep them engaged in school, and connect them to necessary services, our communities can make a tremendous difference for these students. By working with community partners, educators can often help address the key issue—the students’ lack of housing. Our schools can also ensure that these students have the education to prevent homelessness from being part of their lives in the future.
We’re exploring ways that philanthropic dollars can more effectively empower schools to be part of the solution—whether that means catalyzing funds to ensure services and housing are available, promoting best practices to support students experiencing homelessness in their classes, or using data and research to connect this issue to larger efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and increase graduation rates. Education and housing must be part of our collective effort to end youth and young adult homelessness.
By the time my first-grader goes to middle school, I want all of her classmates to ride the bus home—to the same, safe place every night. This is our vision. This will be her reality.