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WATCH: Meeting the Needs of Homeless Students. Lessons From One District

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The number of homeless students has hit an all-time high, according to recently released federal data, and meeting the needs of this particularly vulnerable population present significant challenges to schools and districts.

There were 1.5 million homeless students during the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year data was available, marking an 11 percent rise over the previous year. Nearly 9 percent of those students were living on their own without a parent or guardian—a 17 percent increase since the previous school year.

Homeless students often lag far behind other children in poverty academically. They are coping with stigma and trauma. And they may not have access to basics such as food, clothing, a place to sleep and bathe, let alone school supplies.

One school district in North Carolina—Lee County Schools—has made a special commitment to identifying and supporting its homeless students. Lee County Schools' homeless liaison, Johnnye Waller, was profiled in Education Week's most recent Leaders To Learn From special issue. Among the many initiatives she has spearheaded, a summer enrichment program for homeless students has been the most impactful.

Waller had these tips to offer other school and district leaders:

  • Be empathetic: When people come to us, they come with all they have, which may include anger, hostility, and other negative emotions stemming from traumatic experiences in their past. We must stop and ask ourselves, "What would I have done if I had been in their shoes?"
  • Make decisions in childrens' best interest: Our decisions must be made on what will enable the individual student to learn the most and will be in his best interest. Our every action must be student centered with decisions which help the student achieve success--not only academically but socially and emotionally, especially for our most vulnerable populations.
  • Make a difference: Start with one student at a time and meet them where they are. We may not see the immediate impact of our touch, but it begins to foster corrections and relationships which are essential to human growth and success.

You can read more about Johnny's work, as well as the rest of the Leaders to Learn From class of 2020, here.

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