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Interviews and Data Reveal Lack of Support for Students and Families of Color Experiencing Homelessness

Dec 5, 2019

Students in a classroomFor the tens of thousands of students experiencing homelessness in Washington, the detrimental impacts of homelessness go beyond housing instability. Homelessness affects students’ social and emotional learning and academic outcomes, especially for students of color who are disproportionately more likely to experience homelessness.

According to our most recent analysis, more than 60% of students experiencing homelessness in our state are students of color. Students of color experiencing homelessness also tend to be suspended more frequently, receive more disciplinary actions, and score lower on English language arts and mathematics proficiency tests compared to their white peers experiencing homelessness. These findings show more work is needed to support students experiencing homelessness and strategies to address these issues need to be formed with a racial equity lens to meet the diverse needs of students of color.

Schoolhouse Washington, a project of Building Changes, is gathering quantitative and qualitative data to develop a menu of recommendations and strategies for schools and community providers to better support students and families experiencing homelessness, especially people of color. One way we are gathering information is by speaking with students and families of color experiencing homelessness and school staff. We interviewed more than 30 students and families in King County to learn more about the day-to-day realities of their experiences with homelessness.

Five takeaways from our interviews:
  • Students and families of color experience racism in schools and shelters, and need more advocacy, awareness, and representation in schools, shelters, and community providers.
  • More teachers and staff need to be trained on recognizing early warning signs of students experiencing homelessness.
  • Students, families, and school and shelter staff need more education on all McKinney-Vento rights, not just information on transportation and fee waivers.
  • We need more cross-system partnerships between schools and various community organizations to reach more families.
  • We need to increase awareness and understanding of doubled-up living situations for students and families experiencing homelessness. “Doubled-up” refers to living situations where students and families are staying with others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or similar reasons.
When we asked families what type of support they need most from schools, one family replied, “Number one on my list is just more understanding.” Essi H. and her family ended up homeless and living in a shelter in Shoreline last summer. Her children attended schools in Kent while she was in the process of earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminal justice at the University of Washington. As a mother of seven children, she witnessed the effects homelessness can have on students up close.

She described her children’s experiences navigating peers and teachers in schools, including a time when one of her daughters received varying treatment from two different teachers. “Our oldest daughter comes home crying because she has been worrying so much about grades. It’s sad because she’s only 13 and putting so much on her shoulders…she has one teacher and he’s very understanding, but her English teacher, it’s always something, ‘Well, she was tardy to my class,’ or ‘She doesn’t have this form filled out,’ or this and that…You need some type of compassion and have an understanding [of a student’s circumstance],” she said.

According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, there were more than 1 million students in Washington’s K-12 public schools in the 2017 to 2018 school year. Out of the total public school student population, more than 40,000 students, including Essi’s children, experienced homelessness last year.

Although white students comprise most of the total public school student population, students of color are overrepresented among students experiencing homelessness. Students of color make up 47% of the total student population compared to 62% of the homeless student population. Students of color are also more likely to get suspended and receive disciplinary actions in schools. Black/African American, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native students had the highest rates of homelessness and suspensions last year.

When examining English language arts (ELA) and mathematics proficiency rates among students experiencing homelessness, only one-third of students were proficient in ELA and a quarter were proficient in mathematics. American Indian/Alaska Native, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students consistently had the lowest proficiency rates on both subject areas.

Findings from our interviews with students and families of color experiencing homelessness are essential in helping us create a menu of recommendations and strategies. We hope the conversations we continue to have with school staff, community providers, and families experiencing homelessness will help us build a tool that better equips school staff and community providers to better serve students and families from various backgrounds while also reaching even more students in need.

I’m loud enough and it’s difficult for me [when] I go seek information, so I can only imagine what [it’s like for] other parents, who [aren’t like me], or who are immigrants, or who don’t know what the heck is going on. If you really want to support people who are facing this kind of hardship, [schools and providers] need to take the initiative, [schools and providers] need to be consistent,” said Essi.

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