The American Rescue Plan Act has set aside $800 million to support the identification, enrollment and participation in schools of homeless students. This influx of funding has created a historic opportunity to strengthen services for one of the most underserved groups of students in American schools.
We draw on several recently published studies to, first, describe why it is important to focus on students experiencing homelessness, and second, to share ways in which state and local education agencies could improve the identification and support they provide to this vulnerable group.
Homelessness is detrimental to educational outcomes
More than a decade of research has shown that students experiencing homelessness lag behind their peers on key academic outcomes, including academic achievement in math and reading, attendance, and high school graduation. A recently published study adds to the preponderance of evidence that homelessness is detrimental and provides new evidence on how the duration and timing of homelessness affects outcomes. In this study, the two of us, along with our co-authors Ann Owens and Gary Painter, focus on students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). We find that homelessness is associated with lower achievement and attendance. These negative relationships persist even years after students have been housed, with students who were previously homeless scoring lower on state tests and missing more days of school than students who never experienced homelessness. roaming.
Interestingly, we find that students’ academic performance and attendance stabilize after they have been identified as homeless and eligible for services for several years. This suggests to us that being identified as homeless is itself useful for students. In other words, while homelessness harms children’s academic outcomes, these harms are mitigated by the resources and supports that schools and districts provide to the homeless students they identify.
These findings underscore both why we should be concerned about students experiencing homelessness and why it is important to identify these students and provide them with support.
Use mobility to proactively identify students
If the identification of homeless students is important in mitigating the negative impacts of homelessness, it stands to reason that early identification would be particularly helpful.
In another recent study focused on LAUSD students, our research team found that students who eventually become homeless change schools and addresses frequently in the years prior to identification. This suggests a window of opportunity to proactively identify students who experience homelessness. Asking families to update their housing status each time they change address or school – while informing them of the rights and resources associated with homeless identification – could help find families homeless people who are eligible for services but have not yet been identified.
Additionally, federal law allows homeless students to stay in the same school even if they are out of attendance, and it requires schools to provide transportation. Yet our study finds that school changes increase sharply after students are identified as homeless. To reduce student mobility, which is associated with lower academic achievement, schools should consider information campaigns to ensure families know their rights. Some families may choose to stay at the same school if informed of this option.
Improve identification with email “nudges” for homeless liaisons
District and school homelessness liaisons are responsible for coordinating efforts to identify and support students who are homeless. Often, homeless liaisons have other responsibilities, including those of administrators, counselors, or office staff. This means they must balance liaison duties – including identifying homeless students, connecting students to services and referrals to other programs, educating students and families about the rights of homeless children and youth and the training of school staff who provide services to homeless students – with other competing job responsibilities.
A recently published study by Daniel Shephard and his co-authors, covered by Schoolhouse Connection, offers a low-cost strategy to improve the identification of homeless students by sending email reminders to school liaisons. Drawing on insights from behavioral science, the research team sent out emails to district homeless liaisons that were designed to motivate action and share helpful information to improve the identification. For example, these emails strategically used goals (e.g., “The year we decided to reach out to every homeless student”), collective language (e.g., “We’re all in this together and every identified student will benefit”), and loss aversion (e.g., “Make sure the students in your district are not disenfranchised”) to prompt liaisons to prioritize the ‘identification. A series of simple emails had a significant impact on identification: Districts that received emails identified 12% more homeless students. The authors have made their email templates available here so that states and districts can launch similar email campaigns.
Scaling up email nudges like these could help build identification and ensure more support for kids who need it. More broadly, the study shows that paying greater attention to the identification process leads to the identification and support of more homeless students. Other strategies could also help districts and schools prioritize identification, such as greater emphasis from district leaders, more time/people allocated to work on student homelessness, or more identification training.
Take advantage of best practices
The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges that have often prompted quick and creative responses from schools. Innovative practices that have been implemented during the pandemic must continue to be scaled up in the future. For example, Alexandra Pavlakis and her co-authors suggest incorporating multiple modalities (e.g., phone calls and virtual communication) and more proactive communication efforts even after the pandemic is over.
Other strategies offered by SchoolHouse Connection include: tracking students identified as homeless in previous years; have non-threatening conversations about identifying homelessness and the rights of students and families; translate documents and have bilingual staff; engage with community partners and post information on high-traffic sites, such as laundromats, libraries, motels, grocery stores, and campgrounds; and connect with local eviction courts and sheriff’s offices so they can provide information to evicted families.
What awaits us
Now that the national eviction moratorium has expired and state and local housing assistance programs have begun to close or be suspended, homelessness among families and school-aged children may increase. Evictions and experiences of homelessness have cascading negative effects that can become long-lasting, including more frequent moves, school changes, and a general sense of instability and stress. This can have negative effects on mental health, academic achievement and social development.
It is imperative that we improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness and housing instability in order to support them more quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. This is especially the case if, as our data from Los Angeles suggests, identifying homelessness is associated with a stabilization of student achievement. The research-based strategies outlined above should be added to the toolkits of homeless liaisons and local education agencies.