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We've Never Found So Many Homeless Students Before. That's Bad and Good

Nearly 1.36 million children—more than all the students in New York public schools—go to school without knowing where they will sleep that night.

The number of homeless students in American public schoools rose by more than 100,000 in 2017, hitting an all-time high, finds a new report by Education Leads Home, a campaign by the nonprofit groups America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, SchoolHouse Connection, and the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. The study looked at new data reported from 26 states on the number and graduation rates of their homeless students.

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires more reporting on homeless students, their achievement, and their trajectory through school. But the rise in homeless students has not come primarily through better identification of homeless students, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection. Rather, causes seem to vary widely from community to community, from rapidly rising housing costs in some communities to fallout from the opioid and methamphetamines epidemic in others. She noted, though, that unaccompanied immigrant children are not counted in federal homeless figures, because they are immediately taken into custody.

Regardless of why students become homeless, schools play a central, critical role in providing support to students without a place to live, particularly for adolescents. 

"Homelessness is not just not having housing. ... It goes above and beyond poverty," Duffield said. "There's so much that goes into homelessness, in terms of trauma around the reasons for the homelessness. If you want to improve everybody, these students have multiple risk factors."

The report found that nationwide, only 64 percent of homeless students earn a high school diploma variation in what percentage of homeless students in each state are able to complete at least a high school diploma. That's nearly 20 percentage points lower than the average graduation rate for all students, and nearly 14 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for students in poverty but who have stable housing. Moreover, there was wide variation among the states.

Several states and districts have dedicated graduation coaches and other mentors to help homeless students stay on track academically. Kimberly Friedman, a spokesperson for the Arkansas education department, credited the state's district coordinators for focusing on this. "The coordinators have paid special attention to checking on [homeless students] to ensure that they are on track to graduate," she said. 

This baseline data may not tell the whole story on some states, though, Duffield warned. Some with lower graduation rates, like Oregon, have committed in recent years to identifying significantly more homeless students, she said, and their lower graduation rates may prove more accurate over time.  

In interviews with Education Week below, homeless students talk about their own experiences:

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