When you’re not sure where you’re going to sleep, you don’t have to worry about coming to class.
For educators, this is a difficult challenge.
“When families are dealing with a lack of basic needs, school is simply not a priority,” says Susanne Terry, coordinator of homeless education services at the San Diego County Department of Education. It’s worse for students who move around a lot, he says. Most of them are left behind.
As with other major metro areas, the Pacific coast city, known for its great weather and golden beaches, has wealth as well as deprivation. About one in ten people live in poverty in San Diego, the nation’s most expensive area and a common vacation spot, by some estimates, according to a San Diego Foundation grant maker report released in late October. 86,000 children live in poverty.
For students who simply struggle to attend school, this can translate into poor access to the basics. Housing is not always available, let alone stable access to food, transportation to and from school, and other conditions that must be met in order for a student to be truly committed to learning, such as Internet access and dedicated space for homework.
In 2021-2022, truancy rates in San Diego are comparable to other major California cities, with 30.4 percent of students chronically absent, meaning at least 10 percent were absent from school. For homeless students, the rate is typically higher.
For many educators in this area, the challenges are front and center, Terry says.
So how do they respond?
Long jump attempt
Some districts say they have actually tried to reduce the truancy rate of homeless students.
The San Diego-based Poway Unified School District, which has more than 35,000 students, has a chronic absenteeism rate of 15.7 percent, according to California Department of Education data.
Mercedes Hubschmitt, the district’s director of educational support services and homeless outreach, says the district has really made a concerted effort to keep students coming to school.
He says that chronic absenteeism is not caused by the same problem for everyone. This is concrete. The solution, he says, requires the district to consider the actual needs of students and carefully plan steps to address the barriers those students face.
How? Poway prepares attendance reports and investigates why students are absent. District workers make “home visits”, sit down with families and learn about their barriers. Hubschmitt says what they’re learning is that homeless students miss out on things most people take for granted. The most common problem? This is the physical part of bringing children to class. Thus, the district reviews bus routes, issues cards that provide free use of public transportation, and in some cases gives families gas money. Leaders also work with companies like HopSkipDrive, which transports students to school.
But Poway is trying many similar approaches, as are other districts in San Diego. Hotels have limited time programs to stabilize apartments. There are also efforts to get students clean clothes – for example, access to laundry machines.
Other San Diego districts tell EdSurge that they are increasing trauma-informed care training, doing more tutoring for homeless students, and focusing on college and career planning and guidance — sometimes including tours of university campuses.
The hope is that these solutions will help address the unique challenges facing homeless students.
“After COVID, I think we all went through different things. I think there are things around health, priorities, access that didn’t exist before. So our team is really trying to make sure our kids have what they need to be successful,” said Hubschmitt of Poway.
Another stumbling block: healthcare.
Disparities in access to health care are cited by reports such as the San Diego Foundation as the reason why white people in the city live an average of five years longer than black people.
For homeless students, this can mean more untreated illness in the family.
Poway tried to adapt. Hubschmitt says the district uses the grant to provide Uber gift cards that students use to get their families to doctor appointments.
The situation is different in rural areas.
Kellie Burns, district executive director of Yavapai Placement School #99, sees her staff being able to connect personally with students.
Hers is a small district in central Arizona with only 90 students. Dozens of employees in the district distribute personal phone numbers to students and give them rides to school. When those students go missing, staff call and text them, and even come to their homes. Sometimes, Burns says, staff even follow students around their workplaces.
Burns argues that the extra effort creates one-on-one relationships with students. According to attendance experts, it’s the connections that can keep students walking in the door when they don’t want them to. But that’s impractical for large urban areas, Burns admits.
The number of chronically absent students in Burns County has increased during the pandemic. In 2020, it was more than 50 percent. But it’s gone down: It’s now “slightly higher” than it was before the pandemic, Burns says.
By percentage, the number of chronically absent students in Yavapai is actually close to the official numbers of urban places like San Diego. According to figures sent to EdSurge in November, the chronic attendance rate for Yavapai has been 31.9 percent so far this year.
While the number of homeless students in the district is on the rise, only about 9 percent are chronically truant, Burns said.
Others in rural areas saw a similar pattern.
Fewer homeless students are chronically missing in rural areas because it’s harder for them to hide, says Tina Goar, chief education officer for rural initiatives at Generation Schools Network, a nonprofit that partners with schools to create “healthy school ecosystems.”
Rural areas have fewer students overall, which allows districts to really identify homeless students, he says, based on his experience in rural Colorado schools.
It is more difficult to provide social services in rural areas where he is familiar.
Rural areas rely on connections with large cities and towns to finance social support. When it comes to finding social workers, housing assistance or job training, Goar says, “It’s difficult.” And that’s what the schools Goar works with want, specific solutions to chronic absenteeism.
Yavapai is an alternative school in Yanık district. Burns says she only works with high school students, most of whom are seriously behind on their graduation credits, usually more than a year.
She adds that these students are also in trouble with the law, become caregivers, or face physical, emotional or mental problems. Therefore, they are often not interested in school.
About 75 percent of students who dropped out during the pandemic aged out of the system and never returned, Burns said.
When the pandemic hit, Burns says, most of those students got full-time jobs working in fast food, construction or landscaping. Burns says it can seem like good money to students, which makes them less likely to quit those jobs to go back to school. These students do not return for a diploma or GED.
But some other students push back.
They face another problem, Burns says: They often lack the foundations needed to succeed at high prices. They missed a lot of class time. So even though they’ve moved up, they now have to deal with the frustration of this missed learning. This can lead to depression or disobedience. Burns says she spends most of her time trying to get these students to where they would be if they stayed in school.
“If they’re not told, ‘You’re not a failure just because you’re behind,’ they work harder and pay more attention to their school,” Burns says. But ultimately, it may depend on the student’s support system at home.
Are they left behind forever? Burns is optimistic. “They can all grow up. We will take them there,” he says. It helps that Arizona doesn’t expel a student until age 22, he adds. This may take more time.
Burns says showing compassion and connecting with these students is critical. He tells them, “You have extra time to do this. You’re not a failure, just because you graduated later than you thought you would when you entered kindergarten.”