RENO, Nev. — Just after sunrise on a chilly winter morning, Nene and her four children — the youngest securely tucked in a stroller — set out from their temporary home in an emergency family shelter to their latest bus stop.

They walked past a small convenience store, where customers played slot machines or sipped beer in brown paper bags outside. They sidestepped some adults sorting through grocery carts piled high with personal belongings. They eased past a man collecting discarded cigarettes.

Locking the wheel of the stroller, Nene, 24, lit a cigarette and waited with other families walking from the shelter.

A father staying there didn’t love the location. “This is a lousy spot for a bus stop,” he muttered as a caravan of yellow buses turned the corner. “We gotta walk through the drunks and druggies.”

Lousy or not, the bus stop represented perhaps the only guarantee of stability for families experiencing homelessness.

Since 1987, the federal government has required school districts to provide transportation for students to get to the last school they attended before losing their housing. That’s important because school is where students can find a haven of stability no matter how unpredictable life gets. It’s the place they go every day, greet the same adults and sometimes receive their only warm meals.

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And yet, more than 30 years later, that federal mandate lacks federal enforcement, even as its impact is gaining attention as the homeless population grows and schools — many for the first time — grapple with students who have nowhere to go after the final bell.

Early data from Nevada’s Washoe County School District, which includes Reno, suggests that providing transportation for students experiencing homeless makes a difference: For the class of 2017, nearly two-thirds of homeless students who attended the same Washoe County high school for all four years graduated on time. That’s nearly twice the rate for homeless students who switched high schools at least twice there.

Researchers in New York City found similar results, with school stability pushing graduation rates for some homeless students above the citywide average.

Providing such stability isn’t cheap: In Washington, school districts estimate they spent more than $31.5 million on homeless student transportation in 2017-18 — a 32% increase since 2015-16. Even at that cost, half of all districts received less than a full reimbursement from the state for transportation, the state auditor’s office recently found.

In Washoe County, which spans over 6,000 square miles in Northern Nevada, transportation for homeless students costs roughly $1.9 million each year.

Considerations of cost come amid renewed debate over whether transportation is the most effective way to spend limited resources, and whether the money could be better spent on housing — removing the need for long-distance busing to begin with.

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Katara Jordan manages policy and advocacy for Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to end family and youth homelessness in Washington. She’s not new to the argument that policymakers must decide between spending more on housing or transportation for homeless students.

For her, it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other.

“It’s not beds (versus) buses,” Jordan said. “It’s beds and buses.”

Busing questioned

This time last year, as children returned to school, The Seattle Times’ Education Lab chronicled the growing number of homeless students throughout Washington. It’s not unusual for school districts to pay other districts to help bus students who can only find a place to sleep in a distant city.

Many readers questioned that practice: Why can’t homeless students just transfer to whichever school is closest to a shelter or relative’s home?

Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education, often hears arguments that transportation money could be better spent on housing.

“Simply providing housing doesn’t address the complex root causes for many families,” Duffield said. But “spending the money to keep kids in the same schools is in the law precisely because of its ties to academic outcomes.”

She pointed to Washoe County as an example of those ties.

Seattle and Reno may not seem to have much in common, but like Seattle, the self-proclaimed Biggest Little City in the World is undergoing change.

Companies like Amazon and Tesla have imported high-wage workers willing to pay cash for new homes. Construction crews have started demolishing weekly motels — a downtown icon and temporary option for struggling families — to make room for luxury housing.

In 2017, Nevada ranked first out of all states for the greatest shortage of affordable housing for extremely low-income families. The Silver State also has the highest rate of unsheltered and unaccompanied homeless youth.

Amid that rapid change, graduation data shows promise that Reno’s big bet on busing improved outcomes for students facing so much instability.

Federal law requires school districts to bus homeless students to their preferred school, no matter the distance or expense. In Reno, the Washoe County School District has found providing a stable school environment for homeless students helped them graduate at nearly twice the rate of homeless students who move from school to school. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Federal law requires school districts to bus homeless students to their preferred school, no matter the distance or expense. In Reno, the Washoe County School District has found providing a stable school environment for homeless students helped them graduate at nearly twice the rate of homeless students who move from school to school. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Keeping students at the same school can boost their sense of support and keep them from losing ground academically, said Brittney Kucera, who oversees the school district’s support for homeless students and children in foster care. “Changing schools is the last thing we want to do unless it is in the best interest of the student.”

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Similar to Reno, researchers have found school stability yields results in New York City: Homeless students there who did not transfer schools and who were absent less often graduated at higher rates than the citywide average for all students, homeless or not.

Complex considerations

At the Volunteers of America shelter in Reno, families live on the second story, overlooking a parking lot cramped with cars that adults call home. On the roof, a rusty playground remains unused. A homeless man died there in March, his body undiscovered for days.

A few hours after Nene and her kids waited for the bus, a team of workers from the county, district and shelter met down the hall from the family units.

The team seemed intimately familiar with the particular challenges of the 56 children living on site and the 12 schools they attend: Who didn’t have their immunizations? Could the county spare any vehicles to help with transportation? Which parents needed to finish an orientation so their kids could attend an after-school program while they sought work?

With 27 families between them, the shelter’s two case managers rely on the team to help triage whatever vagaries could tip each family back into chaos.

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High on their agenda: simply getting students to school. “Transportation is our biggest issue, mainly because — well, there’s no one reason,” said Kucera.

Budget cuts don’t help,” she said. “And there’s the bus shortage.”

Kucera wasn’t referring to physical vehicles. Rather, fierce competition for workers amid a low unemployment rate has left the district short 50 to 55 bus drivers daily. Seattle has faced similar shortages.

In Reno, the district already relies on taxi companies to bridge that need, and had considered contracting with rideshare services but decided it would be too expensive.

Despite the federal right to that transportation, not all parents prefer the idea of putting young kids on a bus for long hauls.

At the shelter, Valerie, a mother who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she prefers to navigate the county’s disjointed public bus system with her first grader — spending up to three hours each day riding to and from a school near the apartment Valerie no longer could afford.

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“He’s only 6,” Valerie said. “I don’t really feel comfortable putting him on the bus alone, riding all that way to a school he doesn’t know.”

Aside from busing, Kucera’s department provides students with supplies. Families can request help with paying for field trips, sports and musical instruments.

But even all that support can’t change every last student’s trajectory.

One Thursday morning in January, Haileigh Middaugh sat in a makeshift salon at the city’s only service center for homeless youth — part of Reno’s effort to attract people to the annual homeless youth count. She winced as two stylists teased the knots out of her hair, and recalled the time she spent in Washoe County schools.

At the Eddy House youth shelter, Haileigh Middaugh, 19, gets her hair cut by Jenni King, left, and Alma Ramirez, from Great Clips of Reno. At right is Meichelea Cantrell. 
(Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
At the Eddy House youth shelter, Haileigh Middaugh, 19, gets her hair cut by Jenni King, left, and Alma Ramirez, from Great Clips of Reno. At right is Meichelea Cantrell. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

“They gave me a lot of chances,” said Middaugh, who floats between the streets and her mom’s couch. “Nothing really stuck.”

She reflected on her education: As she moved among friends’ and relatives’ homes, Middaugh got bused to a small school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. She struggled with the classes, but got extra tutoring. And just when a diploma seemed within reach, her stepfather left the family. She didn’t want to bring her pain to school, she said, so she dropped out.

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Middaugh, now 19, said, “I wasn’t in a place to take the help.”

State grants

As in Washoe County, Washington state officials have started connecting housing providers to school districts.

In 2016, lawmakers here approved a grant program that awards $2 million each year to link homeless students and their families with stable housing located in their school district. The grants can cover rental assistance, transportation needs, emergency shelter, tutoring, training for school staff and more.

The Washoe County School District expands north from Reno to the Nevada-Oregon state line and includes the colorful Desert Skies Middle School, seen in the distance in Sun Valley. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
The Washoe County School District expands north from Reno to the Nevada-Oregon state line and includes the colorful Desert Skies Middle School, seen in the distance in Sun Valley. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The program helped boost graduation rates for homeless seniors to 72% in North Thurston schools last year and 100% in South Whidbey this year. (Statewide, the average graduation rate for homeless students was just 55% in 2017.)

Those districts tapped the state grants to hire new academic coaches.

“Schools can’t do it alone, and housing providers can’t do it alone,” Jordan said.

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Still, between the state grants and federal funding, school districts only receive about $2.5 million to support homeless students — a fraction of the $29 million that the state auditor’s office estimated they need.

David Bley oversees programs meant to stabilize families in Washington state for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which provides funding for Building Changes and Education Lab.

In the late 1980s, Bley helped write the federal law known as McKinney-Vento that charged educators with identifying homeless students and transporting them to schools.

“Nobody understood who was homeless and why and whether they were under 5 years old or 55,” Bley said. “That’s why the bill itself is a catchall.”

Bley recently told the public-radio investigative outlet APM Reports that, instead of paying to bus students, keeping families housed would be cheaper. A 2011 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty backs him up: In Seattle, the report found, housing unaccompanied homeless youth or giving housing vouchers to families costs the same or less than providing special transportation.

Buses from the Washoe County School District travel down East Fourth Street in downtown Reno picking up students living in temporary motel housing along that stretch of road, about a mile from downtown Reno. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Buses from the Washoe County School District travel down East Fourth Street in downtown Reno picking up students living in temporary motel housing along that stretch of road, about a mile from downtown Reno. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

In Reno, both resources mattered to Nene.

Before moving there last winter, her children transferred from school to school as the family bounced between housing in Sacramento, California. An eviction there made it even harder to find a stable place to live, so spending up to four months in the downtown Reno shelter seemed like a lifeline.

“That’s the hardest part,” Nene said of her kids. “They never knew what to expect next.”

“They like this school more,” she said, just after waving goodbye to her children on the bus.