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.

11/13/19 – Homelessness and Chronic Absenteeism in Rural Communities

Title: Homelessness and Chronic Absenteeism in Rural Communities

Almost 8 million students were chronically absent from schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Unsurprisingly, research shows that economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be chronically absent than the overall student population—but studies also indicate that students experiencing homelessness are chronically absent at rates even higher than their housed, low-income peers. In many rural communities across the country, homeless students experience a unique set of challenges getting to school regularly and on time. During this webinar, we’ll talk with county-level education practitioners about those unique challenges in rural communities, as well as the resources provided to address barriers to attendance and collaborative strategies to support positive attendance for students experiencing homelessness.


  • Sheri Hanni – Student Attendance Coordinator
  • Meagan Meloy – Director, BCOE School Ties and Prevention Services

11/12/19 – Be Attentive to Attendance: How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Students Experiencing Homelessness

Title: Be Attentive to Attendance: How Chronic Absenteeism Affects Students Experiencing Homelessness

Students who miss 10 percent or more of days enrolled are defined as chronically absent–including both excused and unexcused absences. When students consistently miss school, it often is a sign of underlying challenges and may indicate a student is experiencing homelessness. How can we use available attendance data to help identify children and youth in crisis? During this webinar, we’ll talk with researchers, program administrators, and a school district homeless liaison about the significance of attendance data for homeless students, how we can turn data into substantive interventions, and trauma-informed supportive strategies at the school and district level.


  • Joseph Angaran, Training Director and National Trainer, Check & Connect, University of Minnesota
  • Jennifer Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate, Poverty Solutions, University of Michigan
  • Sue Lenahan, Middle School Counselor, Homeless Liaison, Big Rapids Public Schools, Big Rapids, MI
  • Katie Brown (facilitator), Program Manager, Education Leads Home, SHC

Five Questions with Tina Marie: How My Education Helped Me Push Through Adversity

Tina Marie is a SchoolHouse Connection Young Leader and the current Director of the A Bed for Every Child program at the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, which seeks to provide beds for children who are living in poverty without a bed of their own. Before leading this program, she was the Coalition’s Community Organizer and Legislative Advocate, helping to manage successful public policy campaigns that directly addressed the need to prevent and end homelessness by strengthening state-funded resources for Massachusetts’ most vulnerable residents. During this time, Tina Marie often shared her own experiences as a homeless youth at the state and federal level to help identify the needs of youth who are at-risk of or are currently experiencing homelessness. Tina Marie reports, “When I am not adulting, I love the outdoors, volunteering, cooking, and indulging my love for seeing and experiencing new places.”

Why is education important to you?

On a personal level, no matter what chaos was going on in my life (usually out of my control), school was my only constant. My school was a haven: a place that I knew would be in the same state whenever I returned. I could navigate the day-to-day with familiar faces, friends, resources, and constant structure.  

In my previous work with young people, I often drilled down the need to identify education resources and get a young adult matched with any form of schooling–whether that’s completing high school, getting a GED, or even applying to a two- or four-year institution. Why? Because young adults need to continue to enrich their lives with education. Resourceful young adults who are at-risk or currently experiencing homelessness are arguably  “street smart,” but a formal education is another tool to use to open doors for their future. Education is not one-size-fits-all, either. But further education in whatever it is you have already obtained will never harm you. I use my street savviness all the time, such as my intuition, my people-reading skills, and my ability to achieve my goals using often “non-traditional” means. But in a society that heavily relies on a completed education as a nonnegotiable,  I am grateful that I have an education–an education that allows me to have a seat at the table. I do not believe I would have the same opportunities without it. 

When I started to invest in myself, my teachers increasingly did the same. When I showed up or went the extra mile, they did, too. I showed appreciation and they rewarded me. That C- student climbed to C, then a B-, and then parked herself at a strong B. I became the president of various school clubs and participated in athletics, too.

In your experience, what are some of the most common causes of chronic absence for students experiencing homelessness? 

Chronic absence amongst at-risk youth or youth who are experiencing homelessess is driven by many factors. In my experience, transportation was a leading cause–but other factors included lack of clothing that allows you to fit in with your peers, or challenges with personal hygiene. When you’re young, your peers can be ruthless and often lacking empathy, so it is hard to look past the superficiality of new, hip (or even just clean) clothes, shoes, and squeaky clean hygiene. For females, the lack of free hygiene products is a huge burden because even schools that provide them sometimes require students to actively reach out to an administrator or other adult–and that can be embarrassing.

Can you please share examples of how educators helped you while you were experiencing chronic absence and homelessness?

While I was experiencing homelessness in high school, it was hard to get to school—period. I missed a lot of school in K-8, too. When I did attend school, I felt the frustration of my educators and I did not care whatsoever: detentions, referrals, and lots of “attitude.” I was coping horribly. Each day was hard. Holding myself accountable was tough. After my father passed away and throughout my mother’s incarcerations, I was left to survive alongside a family that did not care for me adequately. I relied on distant relatives, friends’ families, a teacher, and my guidance counselor. At different periods of my life, they dished out whatever they could: rides, meals, clothing, love, lots of guidance, and, at the most trying times, a home. At my lowest point, I had missed a large portion of high school, mostly due to lack of transportation but also by choice. 

I fought to separate myself from the environment I was raised in, and I slowly realized that I was truant and that my grades were average—but that my opportunity to leave my past behind me was not based on the job I maintained or how much distance I put between me and my toxic family. So, one day I decided to show up. Believe me, it was hard to show up. Especially having a reputation in school as a student that didn’t care. A chronically absent student. A student that may not have “what it takes.”

When I started to invest in myself, my teachers increasingly did the same. When I showed up or went the extra mile, they did, too. I showed appreciation and they rewarded me. That C- student climbed to C, then a B-, and then parked herself at a strong B. I became the president of various school clubs and participated in athletics, too. Just as the opportunity to go to college became promising, a local program called HEAT arrived at my school and the stars aligned. The HEAT program (jointly funded by the McKinney-Vento Act, Title I, and local school district funds) provided educational and social work services which helped bridge the gap to apply for college. The program identified scholarships available to low-income students who faced adversity and helped me apply for FAFSA. HEAT also created a campaign that turned into a trust to help with any college costs that may not be covered. There were nice people in my hometown who generously invested in my future.

Adversity differs person to person. All that anyone needs to remember is that tomorrow is a brand-new day and, as long as your feet and your head are facing forward, you continue pushing yourself that way, too. 

What do you wish teachers or other people at school had done to help you while you were experiencing homelessness?

I wish there were an educational service or even an orientation that outlined the services the school provided that included students. In my experience, I attended a grade-specific orientation each year that welcomed students and explained the expectations for students. I wish those orientations had also explained the expectations that we should have had for staff and educators. Having an auditorium full of excited new students is the perfect time to talk about access to contraceptives, health care, free lunch, a food pantry, a closetful of age-appropriate clothing, shoes, hygiene products, grief counseling, mental health resources, and community resources and programs. I believe students will be more proactive in asking for help knowing that what they need already exists. When I felt cherry-picked because of my need or socioeconomic status, I pushed back more–I wanted to blend in and hide, and ultimately that hindered my education and overall well-being.

Once I was given the tools to empower and advocate for myself, I felt the fruits of my labor. I began to embrace what made me who I am. I knew I was strong-willed and resilient, and I was no longer ashamed to have come from the depths of homelessness and poverty. I learned to put my pride aside and began to ask for guidance proactively. I was honest about my educational shortcomings and I began to reach out for my teachers because they made it clear that they were lifelong educators who were in it not for the pay, but to make a difference. Without fail, they began to reach back. 

Nearly 10 years later, my life changed for the better. It did not unfold effortlessly. I found my voice. I questioned everything good and bad and advocated for myself constantly. I trusted my instincts. I advocated for others who were marginalized or voiceless. I found a healthy balance between survival mode and enjoying life as a young adult whose world is showered by sunlight and not rain. 

What words of wisdom do you have for practitioners and students who want to advocate for themselves and their peers?

Adversity differs person to person. All that anyone needs to remember is that tomorrow is a brand-new day and, as long as your feet and your head are facing forward, you continue pushing yourself that way, too. 

I hope that whoever reads this continues to fight for youth who have been silenced: youth who are marginalized because of their gender identities, sexual orientation, the color of their skin, the area they are from–or youth who are simply facing the devastating consequences of choices that were not their own. 

It was Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Our communities are being nickel and dimed to access basic human rights, such as the right to access adequate and affordable housing, healthcare, and education. No one should ever fall victim to a system that is not working fast enough toward removing barriers to resources like accessible housing, healthcare, job training, and education. How great is our nation if, during the 2016-2017 school year, public schools identified over 1.3 million children and youth experiencing homelessness, from preK through high school? 

Please vote with your conscience in every election.

Five Questions with Debbie DiAnni: Building Support Through Empathy, Relationships, and Data

Debbie DiAnni is the McKinney-Vento Liaison and Foster Care Point of Contact, as well as a non-public school tutor, for the School City of Hammond in Hammond, Indiana. The district has nineteen schools–all of which are Title I schools–including twelve elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, two middle/high schools, and an Area Career Center housing Area Career Center University. The School City of Hammond enrolls approximately 13,000 students, 175 of which have been identified as experiencing homelessness. In her many roles, Debbie serves students experiencing homelessness, those placed with the Indiana Department of Family Services, and those placed in non-public schools due to academic struggles. She has worked in Hammond for the last thirteen years and is starting her fourth year as the McKinney-Vento Liaison. Says Debbie, “I enjoy how many of the staff work together to help our students be the best they can be.”

What is one of the most helpful strategies you have learned in a training?

One?!? Hmm…probably learning how to talk to families and students who are experiencing homelessness by coming from a place of empathy, but not pity. I never say they are homeless: I refer to my families as being displaced from permanent housing or temporarily without permanent housing. This came from a training where we were listening to a mother and family speak about their journey in and out of homelessness.  It really opened my eyes to just how pervasive the problem of homelessness is; often by no fault of their own, families find themselves without a home. 

I’ve worked in education for over 20 years but I’ve always been more on the teaching side of things. If anyone had asked me years ago what homelessness looks like, I would have said, “Someone living in an abandoned building or on the street.” I thought that they must have done something to end up there. Families who are experiencing homelessness are not often broadcasting it, so I felt like I had never really met anyone who was homeless. I was uncertain how to approach them, not wanting to offend them. By listening to families’ stories, I began to understand that they wanted no less for their children than what every parent wants.   

What is your most successful community partnership? 

I have two very successful partnerships: one is with a local domestic violence shelter. We have a fabulous working relationship and rely on each other for many things. I am able to assist them with clothing, transportation, and school supplies, and on occasion they have been able to help place a family or student in their shelter that we identify through the district as needing services. They also help me to better understand the agencies that serve our families and how to access things like copies of birth certificates.

Another highly successful community partnership that has evolved over the past three years is with our Township office. They want to be able to assist the most vulnerable students, and I refer many families to them for a variety of needs. For example, the Township office has the ability to provide temporary emergency housing for families that have experienced fires. Last year, the office provided vouchers to a local motel for three of my families that had nowhere to go after they lost their home. This allowed one of the families to have a place to stay until their insurance kicked in. With the other two families, it gave them sufficient time to figure out what their next step would be. They have also been helpful with some of my unaccompanied youth. In one instance, the Township office was able to get a youth placed into a shelter after she had been kicked out of her home. Recently, I had a mom who needed legal assistance, and I had no idea where to refer her for her need. The Township office was able to give me the name and number of a lawyer for her who does work on a sliding scale.  

Can you give us some examples of how you use data at the district level to better serve students experiencing homelessness?

As I launch my fourth year as McKinney-Vento Liaison, the data from the past three years helps me plan for the future. We have nineteen schools in our district, and I have noticed that some schools have identified greater numbers of students experiencing homeless than others. Looking forward, I want to implement some building-level supports for students at those locations. For example, my goal is to train one person in each building to meet with students on a regular basis (weekly or bi-weekly) just to check in with them, see how things are going, etc. I’m hoping that by fostering this relationship with someone at the school, the students see the need to stay in school and develop an understanding of how important school can be for them. I learned long ago in my classroom that students thrive when they have a good relationship with you. Many students who are identified as McKinney-Vento do not have those relationships and are less likely to value school.  

I have also noticed that we need to do a better job of getting our homeless seniors to graduate.  I’m hoping that, by implementing building-level supports, we can improve the graduation rate of our students experiencing homelessness and help them either enter a trade, the workforce, or move on to college. This idea came to me in a two-fold kind of way. A few years ago, I was at a Title I conference and I heard a speaker who was working under a grant she had written to be able to meet regularly with a group of foster care students in her district. I really liked her idea of checking in with the students. Then I realized that a staff member at one of our high schools was unofficially doing just that with a student experiencing homelessness. She had a direct connection to the students. They could drop into her office at any time, or schedule a time to meet. She was able to build a relationship with several of my unaccompanied youth. One such instance was with a young lady who had left her home due to safety issues and moved in with a friend. The staff member would regularly see her and ask how things were going. All of a sudden, the student stopped showing up at school. The staff member reached out to find out what was going on, and learned that she had had a disagreement with the friend and had to leave. The student had no choice but to move in with someone in another town and could not get to school. Because the staff member proactively reached out and discovered the problem early on, we were able to provide transportation to and from her new location before the student missed too much school. This allowed her to finish school and graduate on time with her peers.

I’ve worked in education for over 20 years but I’ve always been more on the teaching side of things. If anyone had asked me years ago what homelessness looks like, I would have said, “Someone living in an abandoned building or on the street.” I thought that they must have done something to end up there. Families who are experiencing homelessness are not often broadcasting it, so I felt like I had never really met anyone who was homeless. I was uncertain how to approach them, not wanting to offend them. By listening to families’ stories, I began to understand that they wanted no less for their children than what every parent wants. 

What do you consider your biggest barrier in helping homeless students?

Identifying homeless students, hands down, is our biggest barrier. Our district is in an urban area with over 80% of our students receiving free and reduced lunch. In a district with 13,000 students, I know we have many more students experiencing homelessness than we are identifying. If I cannot identify them identifying them, I cannot support them. This under-identification shows a need for me to provide better training to the district employees whom our families and students first contact. I have some schools that still don’t believe they have “homeless” students and do not or will not reach out to me for help. 

With just around 2,000 employees district-wide, I think the best training is targeted to the different jobs in our district. The training that I provide to a registrar or secretary is not going to look like what I use with food service. While I like to make trainings interactive, time constraints mean that I have to keep it simple.  My favorite is randomly giving attendees a color (could be on name tag or a Post-It) and calling out a color to move periodically with one color moving the most often. It isn’t entirely clear to the audience what is happening, but slowly you can see everyone begin to understand that this activity represents the frequent and ongoing movement that our homeless families face. Those with the most called color represent our homeless families who need to move, often with little notice, to collect their things and find a new place.  

 I also like the game “Spent” if I have a little more time in the training, because it helps staff better understand the ongoing struggles that our families face. It is an online game about surviving poverty and homelessness where players must make the difficult decisions necessary to live for one month on $1,000, often having to choose between equally disagreeable options. We launched an online registration system this year and I’m hoping this will help identify students more accurately. Most of the children enrolling in our schools are students returning to the same school. With returning students, our district doesn’t check residency each year–they may check it every two or three years. Parents complete the registration paperwork and use their old address. This works until they are asked to provide proof of residency. It is often at that time we learn about a family’s housing status. By incorporating online enrollment, we were able to include a residency survey where families answer a couple of simple questions. Their answers help us determine whether we need to meet with them to determine if they are McKinney-Vento eligible.  

What is one of your greatest accomplishments as a liaison?

I am not one to brag about myself, so this one is a bit harder to answer. I am proud of the relationships I have built with the schools in my district, local community services, and other McKinney-Vento liaisons in my area. This is something that really didn’t exist four years ago. Nurturing relationships with my colleagues has helped me to support families and students in need. It’s easier to do this job when we all come together to support our families and each other. After all, we all want what is best for our students.

My second greatest accomplishment would be creating a better system for my data. When I started, everything was on Excel and the information I kept was very basic. I found that I needed a lot more information than I thought if I wanted to properly serve these families to the best of my ability. I now use Google Sheets, which allows me to access my data no matter where I am. This comes in very handy when I’m away from my office. I include data on program participants, contact information, documents distributed and completed documents received, clothing I’ve given, and transportation requests. I’m always tweaking this to make it work better for me and our students.

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

Emily Kramer is a Senior Program Analyst with the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS), which provides information, referrals, and trainings to schools, school districts, social service providers, parents, and others about the educational rights of children and youth experiencing homelessness. NYS-TEACHS is funded by the New York State Education Department (NYSED) and is housed at Advocates for Children of New York, Inc. (AFC). Here, she writes about New York State’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.

What did your participation in the project looks like?

We signed up to work with the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) on an outreach campaign to increase identification to students experiencing homelessness. The wonderful OES staff drafted content for eight email messages that we sent out to half of the liaisons in New York State, randomly selected. The OES annotated these outreach messages for us and included notes about key principles of marketing/behavioral economics. For example, we learned that a phrase like, “Over 70% of New York districts have identified students experiencing homelessness,” uses social norms marketing, meaning that the reader may be motivated to identify students experiencing homelessness if they know their peers have done the same.

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

The OES spoke to us and the other states involved (New Mexico, New Jersey) and ended up pitching ideas for the project. The initiative had a number of goals: increasing use of existing resources, improving awareness of changes under ESSA, motivating liaisons, increasing identification, and raising awareness about some higher education resources. Identification data are readily accessible and thus were used to measure whether the project had an impact in that area.

What were the results and what did you learn?

The OES compared the increase in identification of students experiencing homelessness in the intervention group (those school districts that received the special emails) to the increase in identification in the control group (those districts that did not), and found a small but significant effect! They did note in their research paper that most of the effect came from another one of the three states involved in the project. That said, the process taught us a lot about how to improve our technical assistance through small tweaks in language. Some changes partially inspired by the project include:

  • increased personalization (i.e. we use mail merge features to include a liaison’s name in the emails they received),
  • writing out content in list form,
  • using language that is less formal,
  • appreciation of brevity, and
  • renewed focus on creating simple checklists for liaisons that clearly outline action steps (e.g. our Supporting College Access Checklist and Top 10 Resources for Liaisons).

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

While we aim to form personal connections with liaisons and service providers across our state, a basic reality is that we need to use mass newsletters to share important resources and announcements. It’s 2019, and we are all inundated with targeted marketing. So, in order to get people to read an email – and take an action – we need to be specific about the action and clear about how to take it! Luckily, there’s no minimum effort required to get started making marketing or behavioral economics-inspired changes to your outreach strategy, so we recommend diving in and editing your process along the way. If you are unable to measure your effectiveness through an analysis of homeless identification (or similar) data, or you’re looking for faster feedback, consider these options:

  • compare email open rates for different messages;
  • track website downloads of various forms you’ve highlighted;
  • look at training attendance for events you’ve done; or
  • ask for feedback in a survey,

All of those feedback mechanisms can help you move toward your goals.

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

I think that the most challenging part was simply finding the extra time to format new emails in our bulk email platform, though this wasn’t an unexpected issue and the time was well spent. As for what has been easier than anticipated – we are by no means “experts” on marketing, but we have rather easily (and informally) incorporated some of the lessons learned from this project into other communications. For the most part, we have become more focused on creating content that is “catchy” and easy-to-read.

Five Questions with Barbara Peoples: How School Nurses Can Support Students Experiencing Homelessness

Barbara Peoples, RN, is the Health Services Manager at Educational Service District 113 in Washington State, supervising school nurses in the region. She also carries direct school nursing responsibilities in several small area school districts. Until this summer, she served for 12 years as the District Nurse at Montesano School District in Montesano, Washington, supervising two other nurses in the district. Montesano School District serves 1,450 students from preK-12th grade and is a high acuity health district with many medically fragile students. While there, Barbara practiced Nurse Case Management for eight years with great success, meeting with junior high students who had chronic health issues (such as diabetes, asthma, and other chronic health conditions) or unmet health concerns (such as an undiagnosed mental health illness or physical need). Some of her students were also in the juvenile justice system, experiencing homelessness, or otherwise identified as at-risk of school failure and/or chronic absenteeism. Barbara is a member of the National Association of School Nurses and the School Nurse Organization of Washington.

How do you support students experiencing homelessness in your work?

We support students experiencing homelessness by addressing their health concerns and needs in many ways. If they have a life-threatening health concern, require medications at school, or have a medical referral, we work with the student to obtain the medications they require and help them find a medical home—preferably a local provider who will care for their physical and mental concerns–to ensure follow-up and completion of required paperwork. We help them obtain health insurance if they have none, working very closely with our counseling office in the schools. We also work alongside our attendance secretary to ensure that attendance problems related to their health and wellness don’t become a barrier for them. Common health problems could include any chronic health condition (e.g. asthma, diabetes, severe allergies, seizure disorders) or a mental health concern (e.g. ADHD, depression, anxiety) which requires students to have medications and regular medical care follow-up, just like any other student with these conditions. It takes a team effort for students to succeed, and the school nurse plays a large part in making contact with a provider; obtaining transportation for the student, if needed, to see that provider; and finding ways to have prescriptions filled. Then there’s follow-up with the student to ensure they are following health care provider orders and directions regarding their health condition(s) and/or medication administration. Helping them keep appointments is also a challenge. The counselors are also part of this team in helping students succeed–physically, mentally, and academically.  The nurse cannot do it alone!

What could schools and educators/other support staff do to better enable you to help homeless students and their families?

Identifying students who are experiencing homelessness is sometimes difficult due to the privacy of the family or student. Sometimes we find out who needs that extra support from close friends of the student. Staff members collaborate to support these students and families by providing referrals for community resources and helping with basic needs through donations from private entities. Our counseling center, attendance secretary, nurses, teachers, and administrators work well as a team to support those students experiencing homelessness. This is done primarily by making known to the school nurse any physical or mental health need the student is facing. Once the need is known, then the school nurse can help the student get the help they need or want, with frequent follow-up.  Sometimes it’s a long process to build trust and understanding with the student to facilitate real change and improvement.

Can you share some examples of how you use data at the school or district level to better serve students experiencing homelessness?

When I learn of students experiencing homelessness, usually through our school electronic system (Skyward indicator), my practice changes some to accommodate those students. I check on them with office visits if needed, and I work to ensure that both their basic needs and medical needs are being met. Also, if there is an extended absence, I try to follow up with these students to be sure they have resources to address the circumstances of the absences. I also work with other support people in that student’s life who can bring in medications, medication authorizations, or referral follow-ups.

What are some barriers you experience in serving students experiencing homelessness?

Lack of communication with families or students is a huge barrier in serving students experiencing homelessness. Because they are highly mobile, they are difficult to reach by phone—I often leave voicemails without return calls. Also, follow-ups are difficult for medical care when they tend to be inconsistent in receiving proper care or treatment follow-up (i.e. keeping medical appointments). Sometimes these gaps are due to transportation–but, most of the time, they just didn’t go to the appointment because other things were a priority that day.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments as a school nurse in supporting a student experiencing homelessness?

It is so rewarding to see a student who is really struggling to get to school, experiencing academic failure, and enduring mental or physical health issues learn to advocate for themselves thanks to our support and the support of the wraparound community. I have a former junior high Nurse Case Management student who became homeless during her 7th-grade year due to physical and sexual abuse that was happening in the home. She really struggled. It took a few years of misdiagnoses for the truth to surface due to the nature of the trauma she experienced. Once it was brought to light, she then was able to get the support she needed, a place to stay, and the proper counseling and medication so she could heal and move on from the abuse. With much support from various people in school and outside agencies, she graduated this year, on time! Yes, she had to do some summer school work and will need to go to Gravity, (“GED + Re-engagement Alternative Vocational Training for Youth”) for credit retrieval for two credits, but she walked with her class at graduation!


National Association of School Nurses

Gravity Learning Center: Reengaging Youth and Connecting Them to Their Next Step

Washington’s School Nurse Case Management Program Manual

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

Daniel Shephard is the President of the Implementation Science and Communication Strategies Group and a former member of the Office of Evaluation Sciences and the Obama administration’s White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. Here, he writes about the intent behind and execution of a behaviorally-informed email communications project developed by the Office of Evaluation Sciences. Part II of this series will describe New York State’s experience implementing the project. Daniel notes: “Although I was involved in the design and implementation of the study, the views expressed herein are my own personal views based on the publicly available information regarding the study. Additional details regarding the study can be found here.”

Why might behavioral insights matter for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program?

The past decades have seen an increase in the number of children affected by poverty and an increase in the number of children in schools who are experiencing homelessness. Nationwide, there are over one million children in school each year who are provided with support through the McKinney-Vento Act and the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program.

Despite this, there are children who qualify for support but have not been identified as “homeless” due to social and behavioral barriers, such as stigma and complex identification criteria. In addition, the homeless liaisons who are charged with identifying students experiencing homelessness in each Local Education Agency (LEA) often have competing work responsibilities. As a result, homeless liaisons may experience challenges regarding keeping up-to-date on program criteria and translating their intentions into actions when faced with other time pressures. Behavioral insights have the potential to help.

“Behavioral insights” cover an array of research findings about the barriers to and drivers of human decision-making and action. These findings come from various research fields including psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, and other social and behavioral sciences. Behavorial insights can shed light on many practices that involve how and why people take action—including the barriers that prevent children and youth experiencing homelessness from being identified for the important educational protections of the McKinney-Vento Act.

To address some of these barriers, State Education Agencies (SEAs) can learn from a recent study conducted jointly by the Office of Evaluation Sciences (OES) of the General Services Administration (GSA), the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students, and three State Education Agencies (SEAs) along with their state partners (including NYS-TEACHS). The study designed and evaluated a behaviorally-informed email communication pilot in order to support homeless liaisons in identifying and supporting homeless students. The study was designed and implemented in collaboration with the SEAs of New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York.

What did the project do?

The study sent out emails every other week on Tuesday mornings during the spring of 2017 with embedded behavioral insights designed to address a number of the potential barriers outlined above.

  • Complexity: To overcome barriers due to the perceived complexity of identifying homeless students, the emails contained simplified explanations of the rules around identification and provided a model questionnaire for identification.
  • Stigma: To reduce stigma, the model questionnaires currently available were edited to reduce potentially stigmatizing language or confusion around terms related to “homelessness.”
  • Attention: The regular and concise emails throughout the spring semester sought to keep attention on the importance of the EHCY program while also providing useful information in a digestible form.
  • Intention-Action Gaps: To overcome gaps to behavioral follow-through, each email contained simple action items with defined time periods for follow-through.
  • Motivation: To encourage homeless liaisons—who often feel isolated—emails reminded them that they are not alone and encouraged them to reach out to other allies in the LEA. In addition, messages used motivation techniques such as framing actions in terms of the lost opportunity of inaction (“loss frames”) and increasing the urgency of action (“time scarcity”).

In addition, emails were sent to LEA superintendents to provide simplified information about EHCY and McKinney-Vento and to encourage them to support homeless liaisons.

The pilot was evaluated using a stratified randomized controlled trial design in which LEAs were randomly assigned to either receive the pilot communication materials or to continue to receive the regular communications that were in place. In total, over 1,700 LEAs were included in the study.

What was the impact of the project?

The study found that making these low-cost adjustments to email communications with homeless liaisons could increase the identification of students experiencing homelessness.

Across the three states, the behaviorally-informed email communications resulted in identifying over 3,000 additional students experiencing homelessness. Those students are now receiving the additional support they are entitled to in order to help them succeed.

The impact of the emails appeared to differ by state and type of LEA, but more research is needed to understand these differences with certainty.

What was learned from the project?

This study shows the importance of tailoring and testing different modes and styles of communication for supporting homeless liaisons in their identification of homeless students. The inclusion of behavioral insights through regular, concise, action-oriented emails sent to homeless liaisons can improve the identification of students experiencing homelessness and connect them with the services to which they are entitled.

We do not know if the reason for this impact was because of increased attention via regular emails, increased simplicity that decreased information overload, simplified calls to action, or heightened motivation. However, the study shows that more research and testing is warranted given the encouraging results of this first study.

This study also shows that it is important for LEAs to work to identify homeless students in the spring semester—not only at the beginning of the school year.

Finally, this study shows the importance of thinking through how behavioral insights can also be used to support the various levels of staff (including “front-line” staff) who are charged with implementing important social programs including and beyond EHCY and the McKinney-Vento Act.

What are some implications moving forward?

States and LEAs should look into adjusting and testing their systems of communication with homeless liaisons. Wherever possible, they should partner with researchers in order to better understand how these results are being achieved.

A first step for moving forward is for SEAs to set up personalized email distribution systems for communicating with homeless liaisons. Such systems could be as simple as the use of the mail-merge functions (to make emails address liaisons personally) or as complex as implementing tailored communication distribution systems (for example, purchasing software that enables custom-designed email distribution that connects to the user’s existing data, collects new data, and incorporates A-B testing that helps to determine which of two variations of a given communication performs better for a stated goal). Such systems would enable states to more easily test modifications and to implement good practices (such as personalization). Ideally, such systems should include the ability to track email open-rates and link click-rates to enable a better understanding of how recipients are interacting with distributed content.

These results show how applying behavioral insights to the EHCY program can help identify homeless students. This identification is a key step in connecting these vulnerable students to supports related to school registration, transportation, extra-curricular participation, and remedial support, as well as opening up simplified eligibility for other educational, vocational, and social support programs.


Email Templates:

  • Email #1 – Intro (
  • Email #2 – Identification (1) (
  • Email #3 – Rights (
  • Email #4 – Identification (2) (
  • Email #5 – Other Resources (
  • Email #6 – College Costs (
  • Email #7 – Vocation (

Collaborating for Academic Success: The State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project

On July 22 and 23, Education Leads Home (ELH) hosted the six state grantee teams of the State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project in Tacoma, Washington for its first-ever in-person convening. Practitioners from state education agencies, school districts, higher education institutions, nonprofits, and early childhood education programs from Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Kentucky gathered at the University of Washington-Tacoma to learn from one another and share out on their work to date.

Since the fall of 2018, ELH’s State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project has brought together dedicated professionals from around the country to take action toward overcoming child and youth homelessness through education, resulting in measurable progress toward one or more of the three ELH goals:

  • Reaching equitable participation in quality early childhood programs for young children experiencing homelessness;
  • Increasing high school graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness;
  • Increasing postsecondary attainment of young people experiencing homelessness;

These six state teams have researched and begun implementation of new approaches to address the most urgent needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness in their respective communities, creating an innovative and collaborative “learning lab” of best practices that will promote educational achievement and help break the cycle of poverty and homelessness. Project content areas range widely, including improving access to early childhood education programs, growing existing host home programs to facilitate high school graduation, and increasing Title I set-aside funding to support the academic success of homeless students.

The two-day convening kicked off with a discussion about the vision and scope of the ELH campaign and how each project is representative of and integrated into ELH’s long-term objectives. Teams then had ample time to both reflect and strategize internally and to problem-solve across state lines, sharing what has worked and—just as importantly—what hasn’t worked in their respective efforts to support some of the country’s most invisible children and youth.

Katara Jordan from Building Changes in Washington State shared that, “Our populations [children and families experiencing homelessness] are often hidden. To support students experiencing homelessness in Washington State, the state legislature established a statewide workgroup to develop a plan for students experiencing foster care and homelessness to help them reach educational equity with their general student population peers by 2027. The great thing about the work group is that state agencies and nonprofits are both at the table and committed to following through on implementing the plan.” She continued, “At every single level, every person is a policymaker, which is why it’s important to have government and nonprofit organizations at the table. The only way to do this work is to ensure systems are working together in meaningful and concrete ways. I don’t think it’s possible if you’re operating in silos.”

Despite the differences in goals addressed, teams reported that they benefited tremendously from the opportunity to connect with one another in person and meaningfully reflect on their accomplishments, unanticipated barriers and challenges, and plans for sustainability. “That was one of the best and most diverse conversations I’ve had at a work-related convening,” noted Jordana Ferreira from Early Childhood Action Strategy in Hawaii.

The ELH team extends special thanks EducationCounsel for their unparalleled support in the strategic planning of and facilitating this inaugural convening.  

We look forward to supporting each state team and facilitating cross-state learning in the weeks and months ahead.

Five Questions with Catherine Knowles, Homeless Education Program Coordinator

This piece by Homeless Education Program Coordinator Catherine Knowles is the second in a series of blog posts that, in five questions, captures some of the most pressing challenges, inspiring triumphs, and innovative strategies experienced and implemented by practitioners supporting students experiencing homelessness around the country.

Catherine Knowles is the Homeless Education Program Coordinator with Metro Nashville Public Schools, which serves the city of Nashville, Tennessee and Davidson County. More than 82,000 students are currently enrolled in the district’s 73 elementary schools, 33 middle schools, 25 high schools, 18 charter schools, and eight specialty schools. Over 3,400 of those students have been identified as experiencing homelessness. Catherine has served in this role for 22 years, and also participates in many community working groups related to homeless issues. She is a member of both the local Housing and Urban Development Continuum of Care Planning Council and Nashville’s Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project Steering Committee. Says Catherine, “I love that no day is ever the same.” 

What is one of the most helpful strategies you have learned in a homelessness-related training? 

I’ve been through lots of trainings, but I’d say the most helpful tip I have picked up along the way is the importance of offering professional development (PD) to school and community partners often, and in both large and small doses. For years, I employed a traditional PD model and held annual one-and-a-half-hour training sessions for my school building contacts, as well as school social workers and counselors. Although this approach fulfilled the compliance portion of training school staff, it rarely had the real impact I was looking for–which was to create understanding, compassion, empathy and “buy-in” in the importance of my work. As a homeless liaison, I need school staff and community partners to fulfill their required responsibilities to serve students experiencing homelessness–but in order for our district to fully meet the needs of our students and families, I also need these partners to want to be part of the solution, or to at least acknowledge the valuable role they can play in connecting families to services. 

Resource: Back-to-School Training Resources

Accordingly, we have created a variety of professional development offerings ranging from a ten-minute McKinney-Vento 101 prerecorded PowerPoint to a 90-minute, in-person training more heavily focused on the social and emotional aspects of homelessness. Because our target audiences are so varied and school staff is so pressed for time, we also send out targeted emails with brief handouts and two-minute video clips, and we take advantage of every opportunity to speak casually with the building staff with whom we need to connect to better serve our students. We realize that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work, and we can have a significant impact through our informal interactions with staff and the community.

What is your most successful community partnership?

This seems a lot like asking a parent which child is the favorite…We have more than 25 community partners that support our work and our families in a variety of ways and we could not do the work we do without any one of them. Each partnership fulfills a vital need for the families that we serve and I consider all of them to be successful–but as I think about the newest partnerships and our most recent successes, I tend to highlight our partnership with Purposity because it is a great example of community members responding directly to the needs of their neighbors. We launched with Purposity in January 2018. At the time, Purposity was a text messaging service (now it is an app) that allowed individuals to sign up for a weekly text listing the needs of students and families experiencing homelessness. The response was OVERWHELMING! We quickly jumped from 250 to 500 community users, and we reached 1,000 users within the first year. This partnership enables us to assist families with brand new household items or bedding once they get housing of their own, or personal items that might otherwise take weeks to locate. For me, the partnership is such a great success story because it is about neighbors helping neighbors in need, as opposed to grant funds filling those gaps. The power of Purposity is the ability to connect generous donors with the real and immediate needs of others in our community.

One Purposity request that really generated a huge response from the community was a posting of needs for a high school senior who was experiencing homelessness and camping outdoors with his uncle in February. They had been in a local hotel for several years, but had to leave there when the uncle’s health declined and limited his ability to work. They could not go to any of the family shelters because the student was over 18, and neither the student nor the uncle felt comfortable at the adult shelter–so they camped and retreated to a relative’s home when weather was severe. Through our generous Purposity donors, they received sleeping bags, a cooler, campfire cookware, boots, jeans, coats, and other supplies needed for camping out in the elements.

Can you give us some examples of how you use data at the school district level to better serve students experiencing homelessness?

After 21 years of begging for more staff, I used data as a justification to add an additional full-time employee to our team this year! At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, we took a hard look at our data. Our rate of chronic absenteeism among students experiencing homeless was continuing to climb, and was more than double the rate for our housed students. Transportation is the most commonly cited barrier to regular attendance. With this information, I made a case for the need to hire one staff person to oversee transportation arrangements for our McKinney-Vento students, since we provide transportation to nearly 30% of our McKinney-Vento students to keep them stable in their “school of origin” (the school they attended when they were permanently housed, or the school in which they were last enrolled). We were thrilled to see a 7.2% decrease in chronic absenteeism among our McKinney-Vento students at the end of this year, and the district has committed to funding a part-time position in the Transportation Department so that we can work together to continue reducing absences related to transportation.

What do you consider your biggest barrier to helping homeless students?

From my perspective from the portable building that serves as my office at the Board of Education in the “It” city of Nashville, the biggest barrier to serving students and families experiencing homelessness is the current lack of affordable housing options in our community—and, relatedly, the difference between the HUD and McKinnney-Vento definitions of homelessness. For many years, I had a laser-like focus to my work and looked only at the educational component of the struggle my families faced, but I ultimately realized that I was not serving my students and their families well with such a narrow focus. Access to a free and appropriate education–along with school stability and services to promote school success–will always be the primary focus on my work, but I also recognize the importance of the educational system working alongside all the other systems of care that impact our students and families. 

As a native Nashvillian, many parts of the city are unrecognizable to me—long gone are the affordable rentals and modest family homes that provided stable places to raise children. They have been torn down and replaced by tall skinnies with roof-top patios and often serve as weekend rentals to bachelorette parties or country music fans. I am not opposed to growth and prosperity, but I do think that in Nashville, it has come with a cost. To me, the cost seems to be hitting our most vulnerable families the hardest as they are pushed out of our community because they can no longer afford to live in the place they once called home. 

Each year, about 80% of the students I serve are doubled-up–and therefore not eligible for HUD homeless services. As our community works to fully implement our Coordinated Entry System (CES), the gap between these definitions is problematic and confusing to families.  The strict HUD definition used by CES leaves the majority of my families outside of that system, and they become frustrated by that. It is hard for families facing a housing crisis to be told that they are not the “right kind of homeless” and cannot receive assistance from a program promoted as the entry point for homeless services.

I believe education leads to opportunity, and that opportunity is the best path out of poverty and homelessness. I speak that message to school staff, to the community, and to my students and families. It is this belief that guides my work and has kept me in the field for more than twenty years—it is also this belief that takes a hit and shakes a bit every time I talk with another family that has to seek education and opportunity someplace else because their community no longer has a place for them.

What is one of your greatest accomplishments as a McKinney-Vento liaison?

Without a doubt, the greatest sense of accomplishment I have felt comes from the state policy work I have participated in over the past two years. With the guidance and expertise of Patricia Julianelle, SchoolHouse Connection’s Director of Programs Advancement and Legal Affairs, we convened a community work group in November 2017 and had two successful pieces of legislation in the past two years. In 2018, the bill that passed allowed homeless unaccompanied youth to obtain birth certificates and state IDs without parental signatures. The bill that passed this spring requires all postsecondary institutions in the state to designate a specific point of contact for students experiencing homelessness. This state policy work will have an immediate and long-lasting effect on students experiencing homelessness throughout the state and it serves as a prime example of the tremendous impact homeless liaisons can have if we dare to work beyond the school walls.