I would give anything if my experience teaching homeless students was one of a kind. Unfortunately, it wasn’t then and isn’t now.
The number of homeless students has doubled in the past decade. In 2013-14, 1.3 million students were homeless. That’s an 8-percent increase over the previous school year, according to the National Center for Homeless Education, and there is no reason to believe the trend has improved.
Homeless students are disproportionately minorities and LGBTQ students. They are more likely to be held back, fail courses, attend school irregularly, and drop out altogether. None of this is surprising. When you’re consumed with survival, little else matters.
Almost 30 years ago, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was signed into law to “ensure that each homeless youth has equal access to the same free, appropriate public education…as provided to other children.” The tragedy is that the law is needed today more than ever.
I tried to be a rock for my students at a time of unimaginable instability for them. Circumstances made them far too wise, far too soon. That wisdom brought a certain wariness and an appreciation for the possibility that anything can change in an instant. We didn’t waste a moment because we knew there were none to waste.
Our school actually had its beginnings in a trailer under the 6th Street freeway viaduct. The school is closed now, and the children attend area schools. I keep a framed photo of my kids close by but even without it, I could never forget them or what they taught me.
There’s no doubt that our nation has the power and the resources to help these children, to address homelessness. What we lack is the will. As educators, we must continue to do everything we can to ensure that all students – even those without a ZIP code – have an educational experience that nurtures and inspires them.
Community schools are an important asset to help us do this. They offer not only rigorous academic programs, but also social services to support families in trouble. They provide classes for parents who are English-language learners. They gather food and clothes for students and families. They have dental and health clinics. They have parent coordinators who can link families with resources to help steady them.
I have visited several community schools, including the Brooklyn Center International Baccalaureate high school in Minneapolis. While I was there a student came in and whispered something to the parent coordinator, who then pointed her to a big walk-in closet full of clothes. The coordinator later told me that the student was living in a car with her mom and had no place to wash clothes. But instead of being too ashamed to come to school, she was there every day – on time.
Community schools point a way forward. And so does the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Many schools receive federal funding to provide support services to homeless students. But ESSA will strengthen the programs offered under McKinney-Vento by providing additional money for school districts with large populations of students who are homeless.
Of course, the real answer is to end homelessness. But until then, we must do all we can as a team of custodians, office assistants, dietary technicians, paraeducators, therapists, counselors, nurses, and teachers to make sure schools are a lifeline for our students.