Districts likely undercounting homeless kids, study finds

Districts likely undercounting homeless kids, study finds

(Penn.) The total number of students identified as homeless in Pennsylvania schools has more than doubled in the last 10 years, but new research finds under-identification remains a significant problem in some districts.

According to the Pennsylvania non-profit Research for Action, an estimated 14 out of every 100 students who live in poverty throughout the country are also homeless. During the 2016-17 school year, however, Pennsylvania reported just eight homeless youth per 100 students.

And in Philadelphia, which has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, only five of every 100 students was identified as homeless–a number researchers said is likely too low.

“Housing instability and homelessness are highly detrimental to children and youth, and the effects often linger long after the experience itself,” authors of the report wrote. “Because homelessness and poverty are so closely related, this is a particularly salient issue for Pennsylvania, home to Philadelphia–the poorest large city in America–and multiple other communities with poverty rates well above the national average.”

Under federal law, students are considered to be experiencing homelessness if they “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Included within this definition are homeless shelters, motels, or places not meant for human habitation, such as a car or abandoned building. Most commonly, homeless youth report doubling-up–or temporarily living in another person’s home due to a lack of housing or economic hardship.

Past studies show that students who have experienced homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out of school, which in turn makes them more likely to experience homelessness as adults.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools are required to identify homeless students to provide them with resources and connect them to local services to help mitigate negative impacts housing instability can have on a child’s academic and other outcomes.

Statewide, Pennsylvania public schools reported educating nearly 25,000 homeless K-12 students during the 2016-17 school year, representing 1.5 percent of the state’s student population–lower than the national average of 2.8 percent.

Researchers noted that identification varied widely from district to district. Among children living in poverty, 5 percent of students enrolled in Philadelphia schools were identified as experiencing homelessness, compared to 16 percent of children in Pittsburgh schools. The state average of students living in poverty who were also identified as experiencing homelessness was 8 percent.

And in the 30 school districts that identified the fewest students experiencing homelessness, the combined rate of identification was less than 1 percent of school-aged children in poverty. Those with the lowest identification rates were mostly rural and suburban districts.

Charter schools–both brick-and-mortar and cyber schools–also served a smaller share of students experiencing homelessness than would be expected based on their students’ school districts of residence, researchers said.

Statewide, the school districts in which charter students resided reported 2.4 percent of students experienced homelessness during the 2016-17 school year. In contrast, charter schools reported serving only 1.3 percent of students experiencing homelessness.

The state’s new school data dashboard will soon include annual enrollment numbers for students experiencing homelessness at the individual school level–an addition researchers said will help ensure numbers are current, and that individual schools serving the most homeless youth are getting the resources they need.

Researchers recommended that in addition to including homeless youth data on school dashboards, the state education department should also annually survey and train regional homeless education coordinators in each local education agency.

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Requiring LEAs to use more effective and non-stigmatizing student identification tools, such as a housing questionnaire that could be administered upon enrollment; and 
  • Considering charter school applicants’ plans to identify and serve students experiencing homelessness, including the school’s capacity to assign a dedicated homeless education liaison and ensure staff training on McKinney-Vento obligations, before approval and renewal.

“These findings suggest that Pennsylvania and its public schools must do a better job of identifying and serving students who experience homelessness,” authors wrote. “By codifying and providing robust training on best practices in identification and investing in more resources and training for all LEAs, Pennsylvania can both ensure students experiencing homelessness are accurately counted and improve their educational status by delivering the supports they need to succeed.”

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