Students who change schools are likely to fall behind academically, and helping families get stable housing can prevent that.

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More than 30,000 students in Washington’s public schools — or about one per classroom — do not have a reliable place to sleep at night, and are therefore classified as homeless.

These students experience a range of problems from psychological stress to hunger and lack of health care. They are also more likely to change schools frequently, which hurts their academic performance and can lead to behavior problems.

The obvious solution is to help their families find stable housing, and a new study from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development concludes that the best way to do that is to provide families with permanent housing subsidies.

In the study, produced in partnership with Vanderbilt University, researchers tracked about 2,200 homeless families for a minimum of three years.

Participants came from 12 U.S. communities and all had spent at least seven days in an emergency shelter. They were randomly assigned to receive one of three “active interventions” — a permanent housing subsidy or two types of temporary housing assistance.

At 18 months, researchers found “striking evidence of the power of offering a permanent subsidy to a homeless family.” Families who received vouchers were significantly less likely to become homeless again or change schools or have parents and children living in separate places.

Paul Tong / Op Art
Paul Tong / Op Art

Other studies show that students who stay in one school do better. Students who change schools lose between four and six months of academic progress each time they do so, according to a 2014 report from Columbia Legal Services.

Mobility is a problem in many area school districts. In the Kent School District, for example, 39 of the district’s 41 schools have had at least 10 percent turnover over the past five years, according to district spokesman Chris Loftis.

Kent Meridian High School, for example, has about 2,100 students on any given day but about 3,000 who attend for part of any given year.

“That’s an example of a school that’s pretty much a different school every day,” Loftis said. “You get a lot of kids coming in the door every single day, not just at the beginning of the year.”

Not all students who come or leave midyear are homeless, he points out, but adds that there is a correlation between student mobility and a school’s poverty level. Across Kent schools, approximately 500 students each year meet the legal definition of homeless.

Schools struggle to deal with the frequent transitions, too, Loftis said

“It’s a challenge not just for school management, but it’s a challenge for all of the kids — those who are there and those who are not there,” he said.