Identifying Students Experiencing Homelessness: How Small Changes in Email Communications Can Achieve Big Results, Part III

Dana Malone is the State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth within the New Mexico Public Education Department’s (PED) Student Success and Wellness Bureau. Here, she writes about New Mexico’s experience implementing a behaviorally-informed email communications project developed by the Office of Evaluation Sciences. You can read about the development of the project in Part I of this blog here, and about New York State’s experience implementing the project in Part II of the blog here.

What did your participation in the project look like?

I have been working towards improving our identification of students experiencing homelessness in New Mexico for several years and this project came along at the perfect time for me, as ESSA had just become effective.  I heard about this opportunity during a State Coordinator webinar and thought, “What do I have to lose?” I was certain that no one read my emails in detail, no matter how much I bolded, highlighted, italicized, and underlined things.   

  • In the 2017-2018 school year, the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) asked for certain information (LEA homeless student counts, challenges, current housing questionnaire, etc.) so that they could determine which LEAs would receive the intended emails.  
  • We agreed to work on helping LEAs and Homeless Liaisons access supportive resources and helping homeless students apply for higher education. The OES crafted six messages related to resources and two pertaining to higher education that we released regularly throughout the year.   
  • I noticed right away how friendly and easy to read the emails were. The “regular, concise, action-oriented emails” were very different than the “way too much information” messages that are traditionally sent out. 
  • I received positive feedback immediately from LEAs–some from whom I had never heard before. 

How did you determine that identification of students experiencing homelessness was the issue you wanted to address with this initiative?

Under-identification has always been my biggest challenge as the State Coordinator for a few reasons:

  • New Mexico is the second poorest state and, as of 2018, has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the nation. Census data show that 30 percent of New Mexico’s children are living in poverty, but because the poverty threshold for that figure is so low (around $20,000 a year for a family of three and about $25,000 for a family of four), “the percentage of children who struggle with poverty-induced stress on a day-to-day basis is certainly higher.” 
  • New Mexico is also very culturally diverse. The population is 47% Hispanic/Latino and 10% Native American. This includes 23 tribes and 19 pueblos, which are all distinct and represent sovereign nations.  
  • Both populations tend to live in multigenerational living situations.  Many of these families live in housing or communities that lack basic physical structures and facilities (i.e. buildings, roads, utilities).  This is the norm for many New Mexico families, making “doubled-up” and “inadequate housing” very difficult to tease out. 
  • When this project began, only about half of the LEAs statewide were reporting students experiencing homelessness.  

The PED requires all LEAs to submit their data for every program every 40 days for review. The LEAs do not receive any of their funding until all data has been submitted and validated by PED staff. This allows the PED to evaluate the effectiveness of EHCY programs, determine LEA technical assistance needs, and plan monitoring reviews. The implementation of ESSA required me to improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness in my state, so I was willing to try all of the best practices I had been taught over the years. Participating in this pilot project was just one of many strategies that we implemented to improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness. Other strategies included: 

  • Requiring the use of Kickstand for all professional development for homeless liaisons; all liaisons must pass with an 80% proficiency rate;
  • Providing guidance, resources, and templates of policies and forms on the PED website;  and 
  • Contacting homeless liaisons from LEAs not reporting students experiencing homelessness and providing targeted technical assistance until they do start reporting.

What were the results and what did you learn?

Compared to the other pilot states (New York and New Jersey), this project was most effective in New Mexico–but we aren’t really sure why yet. I suspect that it was effective because it was an extremely different communication style than what LEAs were used to receiving from the PED. The messages were personalized, friendly, and concise. They were also visually pleasing and gave homeless liaisons and superintendents action steps that were truly doable. 

We started implementing all of these strategies during the 2017-2018 school year and now have 25 more LEAs reporting students experiencing homelessness!  I feel that that is very significant! One example is Espanola Public Schools, which was on my radar because they had not reported students experiencing homelessness since 2009.  I knew that could not be correct because, prior to my position as the State Coordinator, I ran a youth emergency shelter in Santa Fe and had dozens of youth from Espanola stay there every year.  

Espanola was included in the OES project, which is where this adventure began!  From there:

  • They selected the perfect person as the homeless liaison, Anna Vargas Gutierrez;
  • Anna took the Kickstand course, received targeted assistance from me, and implemented an ECHY program in that district;
  • In the 2017-2018 school year, Espanola Public Schools went from identifying 0 students experiencing homelessness to 55 students;  
  • They received the ECHY sub-grant in 2018 and obtained the funds they needed to improve and expand their program to include six additional site liaisons; 
  • They reported 123 students experiencing homelessness in 2018-2019, and the number keeps rising;  
  • They are part of the Northern New Mexico Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program (YHDP) and used their new data to justify opening a street outreach program in their community! They do amazing work and I couldn’t be more proud of them. 

What are your recommendations for others who are interested in implementing these principles in their outreach?

Don’t be afraid to try new things and let go of ineffective practices! The information that we receive at our conferences, meetings, webinars, etc. is provided to us for a reason. 

The opportunity with OES sounded interesting and, like I said earlier, I literally had nothing to lose from trying new techniques. Even small changes like personalizing the emails really seemed to make a huge difference. I still try to use what I learned in this pilot project when sending out communications and I promise that those are better received than when I am forced to return to the more formal PED communication style. 

My advice is to try it – what do you have to lose? 

What was the most challenging part of this project, and what was easier than you anticipated?

Learning how to use mail merge was by far the hardest part of this project, but it was worth learning–and relearning, and relearning! This summer, I created a series of messages for the 2019-2020 school year that incorporate the techniques learned from this project. Recently, Northern New Mexico was awarded the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program grant. We plan to use the same techniques learned from the OES in those messages as well.  We feel that this approach will be especially helpful in this region.