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More Than 1 Million K-12 Students Are Homeless. What One District Is Doing About It

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With more than 4,000 homeless students in its schools last year, educators in the Dallas district decided they needed to try something new, especially to support the most extreme cases—students living in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings.

The district is teaming up with After8toEducate, a local nonprofit, to turn one of its unused elementary schools into a 35-bed shelter and a 24-hour drop-in center that would provide homeless students with wraparound services, such as mental health counseling, primary medical care, and tutoring.

District officials say that when the facility is up and running next year, it will be the first of its kind—a shelter and one-stop-shop for homeless students on a school district campus—in the country.

With more than 1 million students classified as homeless across the country, districts are taking a harder look at what they can do to help those students be successful in school and graduate. An August report by the New York City-based Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, put a staggering figure on the number of homeless students in New York City, the nation's largest school district. The report estimated that 100,000 of the district's 1 million students were homeless in the 2015-16 school year.

Paying More Attention to Needs of Homeless Students

The latest federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, for the first time requires schools and districts to disaggregate data on test scores and graduation rates for homeless students, the way they already do for racial minorities, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students.

Texas homeless.JPG

The new Dallas effort is aimed at unsheltered high school students, about 112 students.

Of the 113,000 Texas students who were identified by districts as homeless in the 2014-15 school year, three percent were considered unsheltered, according to the Dana Center and the Texas Education Agency. Unsheltered refers to homeless students who do not live with a parent or legal guardian. 

Nearly a quarter of the state's homeless students were in high school. The vast majority were in doubled-up housing situations.

"We have to find a way to try to address this bigger homeless situation, which is increasing not only in the city of Dallas, but I think in the United States," said Jaime Sandoval, the executive director of student advocacy and youth outreach in the Dallas district. 

"If you start targeting your youth—where you are empowering them to give them the tools necessary to be productive and successful—then, hopefully, that will translate into [fewer] individuals who are on the streets...once they are adults," Sandoval said.

Jeanne Stamp, the director of the Texas Homeless Education Office at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas in Austin, praised the Dallas proposal and said that she wished more districts had the resources to pursue similar efforts.

"If you were to interview any other homeless liaison in any of the school districts in Texas, and, probably throughout the country, they will tell you that unaccompanied homeless youth shelter is one of their main needs—there are few places that an unaccompanied youth, who is a minor under the age of 18, can find to get shelter," Stamp said. "Most shelters don't want to take in the younger kids. They want to have parent or guardian signature or contact within a very brief time, like within a day or two, and that's not possible for most kids. There are not a lot of options for those kids."

Still, she said, other Texas school districts have been ramping up efforts to give more direct supports to homeless students.

In Waco, for example, The Cove, a drop-in center that's open from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for high school students who are homeless, offers students homework help, mentoring, and tutoring. The Cove has bathrooms, a shower, laundry room, study rooms, and a dining room for students.  And the school district has also worked with the local housing authority to create temporary housing for homeless families.

And more and more school districts are offering mental health services and other medical assistance to students, she said. 

Those efforts come at a critical time, Stamp said.

"For one thing, we have a growing number of youths that are not with their parents or legal guardians," Stamp said. "They are moving around, couch-surfing, and aren't necessarily sheltered at night. We have a lot more street youths, and we are seeing issues with those kids—mental health issues and physical health care issues that go unattended, obviously, when they don't have a parent or guardian looking out for them. Schools are seeing that they have to address those needs or those kids are not going to be able to be successful in school and go on to be able to graduate and have post-secondary success of any kind."

Still, she said, to make such programs work, districts must ensure that the individuals who are providing the wraparound services for homeless students are knowledgeable and have experience working with this specific population. They must be up-to-date on state and federal laws and have a keen understanding of what students need, she said.

Having homeless youth who can advise district leaders on what they and their peers need when living on the streets and the kinds of services that can be most helpful is essential, Stamp said.

"Get Help to Those Who Need Help"

Sandoval, who has been overseeing homeless services in the Dallas school district for about a year, said that the partnership with After8toEducate is one of the district's many efforts to meet the needs of homeless youngsters.

In the 2016 -17 school year, Dallas ISD had 4,200 homeless students—students who lived in shelters, hotels or motels, or who were doubled up with family or friends and did not have permanent housing. 

Sandoval thinks the number of unsheltered youth is much greater than the 112 the district had last year. An estimated 500 homeless youths are of school age but not enrolled in school, he said. 

The After8toEducate program is an effort to reach those homeless youths—the ones who are couch-surfing and sleeping in abandoned buildings—and bring them into the school system, he said. The 35 students will be chosen on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"Our goal is to get help to those who need help," he said, adding that the district will make additional efforts to link additional homeless students to other housing options in the city.

The district already has a drop-in center that provides some of the wraparound services that After8toEducate will provide. At the current program—which does not have a shelter component—students can get food from a pantry, hygiene items, uniforms, and clothing—"any of those things that students need to be successful in school or to help them become part of the school without standing out," Sandoval said.

"Something as simple as toothpaste and a toothbrush can mean the difference between a student contributing in a group discussion, or it could mean that they get bullied because they are different," he said. "We are trying to remove those roadblocks for them."

There is also mentoring available for those students, he said.

The new program will give a second life to the Fannie C. Harris Elementary School, a two-story building that has been closed since 2006.

The district's contract with After8toEducate, which was approved last week, will last for seven years, and it can re-upped for additional five-year extensions.

The nonprofit group will be required to provide the district with data on the number of students served and social services provided. And a third-party evaluator will look at the program and the services it provides to students. 

"What we are hoping to accomplish with this [is to have] students who are healthy, have a place to stay, and obviously graduate from high school," Sandoval said. "Not only graduate from high school but have as many opportunities as their counterparts—that they have college-and-career opportunities, that they have doors open for them to take them off the streets. We want them to be able to self-manage ultimately."

Image 1: Image by Getty

Image 2: Texas Education of Homeless and Youth Program, Annual Report, 2015-2016, by the Texas Education Agency, the Region 10 Education Service Center, and the Texas Homeless Education Office.

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