PD key in supporting homeless K-12 students

Raising awareness among teachers and administrators helps to better identify students struggling with unstable housing and then connect them with the services and supports available.

An all-time high of more than 1.3 million students experienced homelessness in the 2016-17 academic year, according to a recent study by the National Center for Homeless Education. That represents a 70 percent increase over the past decade.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act already requires every school district to have a homeless liaison, so district leaders are bolstering and expanding other support services. Perhaps most important, they can use professional development to help teachers recognize homelessness so students can get the services they need, says Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit dedicated to overcoming homelessness through education.

“Teachers have their eyes and ears on students for the majority of the day, so they’re in a position to notice who changes their behavior or falls asleep or is talking about moving around—things that might trigger a deeper conversation,” says Duffield.

Age-appropriate homeless support

Many districts focus training around local resources, says Duffield. For example, Bellevue School District in Washington recently partnered with Columbia Legal Services, an advocacy organization, to produce a training video that covers the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and details the available community supports.

Any PD for teachers should be trauma-informed, as events that lead to homelessness are often as traumatic as becoming homeless is, says Duffield.

Districts may want to reach out to former students and parents who have experienced homelessness to gain insight into what the experience is like while trying to attend school, says Duffield. PD should also vary by grade level.

“Training should take into account dealing with the youngest students through high school, where some youth may be on their own,” says Duffield. Students face different challenges at different ages.

‘It’s not the child’s fault’

Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth-largest district in the nation, had nearly 9,000 students experience homelessness last year. The district’s Project UP-START program identifies and provides attendance and academic support to students who endure “unstable housing.” 

And simply referring to homelessness as “unstable housing” has boosted the program’s success, says Debra Albo-Steiger, the district’s homeless student liaison.

“There’s a lot of pride in our community, and the word ‘homeless’—that stereotypical person under the bridge—carries a lot of stigma,” says Albo-Steiger. “We ask if you know anyone in ‘unstable housing’ and then provide a list of our services. It removes the stigma, and gets out the word in a nonthreatening way.” As a result, student and family participation in services has greatly increased.

This past year, Albo-Steiger organized separate training sessions for elementary, middle and high school teachers, and for postsecondary support and new homeless liaisons. Training covers the basics—the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, support programs, and services such as a district shop that provides free food, clothing and toiletries.

Miami-Dade focuses extra attention on high school seniors and their postsecondary plans, which are often disrupted by the stress of worrying about having a place to sleep. The district coordinates college visits and offers free SAT and ACT prep classes for homeless students, and actively partners with nearby higher ed institutions, community colleges and other training programs.

Ultimately, backing from district leadership is important. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who was homeless as an 18-year-old student, has been a staunch advocate of Project UP-START.

“A child who is in a homeless situation—it is not that child’s fault and your heart just breaks for them,” says Albo-Steiger. “And when you can infuse that empathy into your front office, your school building and your district, the community at large is much more willing to come forward.”

Educator prep

To better prepare aspiring educators to support students who experience unstable housing, Lesley University in Massachusetts offers a certificate in child homelessness studies. The five-course, 15-credit program covers trauma, counseling, parent resilience, policy and advocacy, among other topics.

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