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ESSA strengthens services for homeless students

Number of homeless students has doubled since 2006-07
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires districts to grant homeless students credits for work done in other school systems.
The Every Student Succeeds Act requires districts to grant homeless students credits for work done in other school systems.

Districts and states that have done the best job graduating homeless students have now seen some of their practices enshrined in federal law as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“The things some districts are doing well are now instituted as expectations for all districts,” says Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “These changes are very significant.”

The number of homeless students increased in the 2016-17 school year to about 1.3 million—doubling since 2006-07.

Identifying, then supporting

The changes start with each district designating a liaison for homeless students. In the past, the role had often been tacked onto an administrator’s responsibilities. The liaison must now undergo extensive training in identifying homeless students, and ensure teachers, counselors, cafeteria staff, bus drivers and other school staff have the same skill.

For example, a cafeteria worker might notice a student pushing to the front of the line or hoarding food, a sign the student went hungry over the weekend; or a teacher might overhear a student talking about having slept on a couch.

Identifying them allows schools to provide more appropriate support services so they don’t drop out, says Erin Ingram, co-author of “Hidden in Plain Sight," a report on homeless students issued by Civic Enterprises, a public policy research firm, and America’s Promise Alliance, which focuses on dropout prevention.

To keep students in school, educators can be more flexible with test schedules and homework, or help students find Wi-Fi at home, says Ingram.

“Schools should be compassionate and aware that if they have students sleeping in class and who showed up without school supplies, it might not be because they’re disengaged—it might be because it took them three buses to get there,” she says.

ESSA also extends to preschool the federal McKinney-Vento Act’s stipulation that homeless students be allowed to continue to attend the same school even when they relocate. This sometimes requires districts to spend extra funds to send buses or taxis to distant locations.

Student credit, college counseling

ESSA further requires districts to follow California’s and Texas’ lead in granting students credits for work done in other school systems. Falling behind is a leading factor for students dropping out, says Duffield, whose organization helped craft ESSA’s homeless provisions.

In 2017-18, districts must report graduation rates and academic achievement figures for homeless students. Such data will better identify achievement gaps, and inform states and districts about where resources are most needed to improve performance, Ingram says.

Lastly, ESSA directs districts to beef up college counseling for homeless students, including getting them information to apply for financial aid. Homeless students might want to know which colleges provide housing during vacation breaks or offer special programs for those coming out of foster care, Duffield says.

Fairfax County School in Virginia, for instance, has hired a retired special ed teacher to work solely on college preparation with homeless students. As of last April, 30 of the district’s homeless students from the class of 2016 had been accepted to college.

ESSA also increased funding for federal K12 homeless programs to about $85 million—a 20 percent increase.

“Schools are likely the most stable entity in a student’s life,” Ingram says. “We know schools can’t do everything, but it’s the only place where there’s a large community of caring adults who can help these students.”

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