It’s disappointing, but it’s not a surprise.
That’s the response many experts and activists had to new data on student homelessness in Washington state. The information, from a new Schoolhouse Washington report released Monday, uncovered — among other things — how many students still struggle with housing security and how their academics suffer as a result.
“It just highlights the urgency,” said Daniel Zavala, who oversees policy and strategic communications for Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to end youth and family homelessness in Washington. “School is a safe place for so many students experiencing homelessness … and you see how slowly things are working.”
The report, which used data from the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, drew attention to several key findings, including:
- Students without a reliable place to sleep at night have much lower academic performance rates than their housed peers.
- While cities have more homeless students, rural areas report much higher rates of homelessness.
- While the vast majority of students experiencing homelessness are doubled-up or living in shelters or hotels, more and more are unsheltered.
- More than 60% of Washington students experiencing homelessness are students of color (31% Hispanic/Latino, 12% Black/African American, 11% mixed race, 3% American Indian/Alaska Native, 3% Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander and 2% Asian).
The release marked the second in a series of reports by Schoolhouse Washington, which is a student-focused initiative run by Building Changes.
What the data tells us
Students experiencing homelessness have posted higher-than-usual scores on several academic metrics — including higher rates of passing standardized tests in English language arts and mathematics, dual-credit enrollment in college-level classes and 9th grade “on-track” rates. But housed students, including low-income kids, still consistently do better academically.
So while academic outcomes for homeless youth have increased, the gap between their performance and that of their house peers has actually grown larger, Zavala said.
When it comes to English and math, 50% to 60% of housed students met state academic standards in 2018, while 25% to 34% of housing insecure students passed the annual assessments. Rates for homeless black and Native American students were even lower.
Similarly, only 56% of homeless students graduated on time in 2018, compared to 83% of their housed peers.
“This is an issue that is about more [than] poverty,” Zavala said. “Students experiencing homelessness have outcomes far below those of their peers living in low-income households. This is clear evidence that we need tailored solutions and targeted resources specifically for homelessness.”
Jenny Haaland, a 4th grade teacher at Hazel Valley Elementary School in Burien, said she sees these results reflected in her classroom every year. This year, four of her 22 students face housing insecurity.
“If you don’t have shelter, food and safety, your brain is not in a place to learn,” Haaland said. “I could have the best lesson plan in the world, but if your mind is thinking about tonight, then you’re not going to learn anything.”
Haaland has been teaching at Hazel Valley for six years and said the school heavily focuses on social emotional learning. They teach the kids to be hyper-aware of their feelings. They talk about processing emotions. They brainstorm ways to self-regulate and cope.
“The kids who are housing insecure have such a harder time with that,” she said. “It really does affect their ability to learn when they walk in the door.”
Zavala also noted that the number of unsheltered homeless students was growing rapidly within the group of students facing housing insecurity.
While the vast majority of homeless students are doubled-up, or “couch-surfing,” the group of unsheltered homeless students has increased the fastest — meaning more and more students are living in abandoned buildings, campgrounds, vehicles or bus stations. In 2015, 1,669 homeless students were sleeping in unsheltered spots. Last year, the number had grown to 3,154.
LaMonte Green, who works with homeless youth at All Home, King County’s homeless services coordinating agency, said he was also shocked to see doubled-up students report similar academic outcomes to unsheltered students and those in hotels, motels and shelters.
Generally, Green said, people believe that students who are staying with relatives or friends are in much better situations. But because the data shows that those kids are graduating at the same rate as unsheltered students, there’s cause for concern.
“Doubled-up might be really unsafe,” he said. “This data is really highlighting for us that … we need to address the needs of those who are doubled-up.”
What the data doesn’t tell us
The Schoolhouse Washington report also points out that students living in rural areas are much more likely to struggle with housing. A big part of this could be because of the distressed economic conditions that often come with more rural locations, said Jim Kowalkowski, director of Washington State University’s Rural Education Center.
“The rural counties in our state have much higher unemployment rates, so I think there’s a connection,” he said. “If you’re distressed economically as a family, sometimes that’s the reason some kids choose to leave home or somewhere else.”
But Kowalkowski said he’d love to know more about what kinds of work opportunities are available for students and families in rural areas. Knowing what their economic situations are could help better point to the cause of their housing instability, he said.
It’s also important to note that the tests don’t measure the same group of students from one year to the next — so the report doesn’t tell us how last year’s homeless students are doing, but rather how that group performs as a whole.
What questions remain
While the report documents the demographics of the state’s homeless students, traces their academic outcomes and pinpoints their locations, it doesn’t analyze causes, Zavala said.
That’s the next step, he said.
“We want to identify who those people are who are serving students well, identify what they’re doing and share those practices with others,” Zavala said.
Who are the students in need of housing services? How many are unaccompanied? How can the state provide more opportunities out of school? What can educators do to make transitions between schools easier?
Some of these questions are on Haaland’s mind. Often times, she said, the hardest part about working with homeless students is finding ways to keep them at the same school.
She added, “Switching schools every year is awful, but switching schools midyear is so detrimental to their learning.”