Five Questions with Dr. Patricia Popp: Training is Critical to Support Students Experiencing Homelessness

Dr. Pat Popp is the Virginia State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has outsourced the homeless education program, called Project HOPE-Virginia, to the William and Mary School of Education since 1995. Pat oversees and carries out all of the state’s requirements to implement the Education of Homeless Children and Youth program for Virginia, including state level policies, interagency collaboration, training, technical assistance, monitoring of school districts, and awarding and managing subgrants to school districts (of which the state has 132). For the past several years, Virginia schools have identified approximately 20,000 students as experiencing homelessness at some point during an academic year. Pat notes that her favorite part of the job is problem solving with like-minded colleagues who care about doing what is right to support students.


States Pat, “As a side note, I feel that Virginia is unique in having its State Coordinator sited at an institute of higher education, and I thought I’d share a bit about how that came to be. The Office of the State Coordinator was mandated in the first authorization of the Stewart B. McKinney Act in 1987. Originally, VDOE housed the position. In 1995, the State Coordinator at the time left and the program had a very small budget of less than $400,000. Our state Superintendent was trying to decide how to proceed when he met James Stronge, a College of William and Mary faculty member, at a luncheon. Dr. Stronge had just written a book on promising practices in the education of homeless children and youth that had won a national award. National expertise in the backyard and Dr. Stronge’s entrepreneurial skills led to William and Mary assuming responsibility for the program for the 1995-96 academic year and naming the office Project HOPE with Dr. Stronge as the State Coordinator. That happens to be the year I started in the doctoral program under an OSEP grant. The faculty mentor assigned to me as part of the grant assisted Dr. Stronge in evaluating the status of Virginia’s homeless education program. That was my introduction to homeless education. For the next several years, I spent more and more time working in the HOPE office. In 2003, Dr. Stronge decided it was time for me to have the title of State Coordinator.”

How and why is training teachers (both pre-service and in the field) a big part of how you support students experiencing homelessness?

Being located in a School of Education, I have the opportunity to teach preservice teachers and incorporate the study of student homelessness into those classes where there is a strong intersection (such as issues of mobility and the impact on classroom management). In addition, I have been a guest lecturer for other education classes, undergraduate service learning groups, and our W&M Law School. Our office also has the benefit of hiring graduate assistants studying at W&M. These students become our HOPE ambassadors when they graduate and begin working in Virginia schools. Being the State Coordinator, I also have many opportunities to share our work with teachers in the field.

I was a teacher for students with disabilities when I entered the W&M doctoral program almost 25 years ago. I still see myself primarily as an educator. I truly believe that nothing we do in education makes a difference unless it affects a student. Since teachers have the most direct influence on our students, it is imperative that they be part of our work in homeless education. Teachers can be sensitive to the warning signs that a student is facing housing instability and should know how to make appropriate referrals to the local liaison to enhance our identification process. Teachers should have strategies that make students feel welcome, wanted, and safe in their classrooms so they can learn. Teachers need a large repertoire of supports to address the physical and affective needs of their students. Whether it means having snacks and extra breakfast items in the class for anyone who is hungry or assigning a buddy (I prefer “academic ambassador”) when a new student joins the class midyear, there are so many small steps teachers can take to reach our students.

What are some of your most effective and eye-opening teacher training strategies?

In addition to the McKinney-Vento basics of definition and rights to immediate enrollment and school stability, I find the most powerful part of any training is the use of activities that give teachers a chance to “feel” what it is like to lack resources that people who are more affluent take for granted. I give Jani Koester, a Wisconsin liaison, credit for filling my toolkit with empathy-building activities: the United Way Making Choices budget activity, her “What is Your Day Like?” questionnaire, and, when there is time, her Mobility Shuffle simulation. It is becoming more common that a preservice or current teacher will come up to me individually after a training and share their own history of homelessness. The hope I derive from these conversations is knowing we will have teachers who really understand what our students go through and can help change the narrative about what the future needs to be for students who are homeless. Students need to hear about success stories, and the more we have, the more we will get!

According to your students, what are some of the biggest barriers that teachers face in supporting homeless students in the classroom? 

There are Herculean tasks for our teachers if we are truly going to move the needle on the academic and life success of our students experiencing homelessness. Teachers must know their craft and have the ability to quickly assess academic needs, find ways to “fill in” any missing skills, and still challenge and excite our students. This includes sending the message that our students can be successful and will have opportunities for a future without homelessness. It may be planting the seed that college is in a kindergartner’s future or being the warm demander that will not let a student give less than his best on an essay in Senior English. We ask a great deal of our teachers, and do not always give them the support they need. I think the greatest barrier/challenge I hear from teachers is the lack of support and tools to meet the needs of their students. It is not enough, but uplifting our teachers by voicing our respect and acknowledging their work is a good beginning. We need ongoing research to really figure out what works and what is most critical in our instructional interventions. This is so difficult with students who move so frequently that typical research analyses may not work. Action research with teachers might be a vehicle to explore. We certainly need to listen to teachers and make them a more visible part of our work.

Can you share “success story” of how one teacher implemented his or her training when working with a student experiencing homelessness?

I remember observing an elementary school teacher who taught in a school located near the motels in one of our beach areas. During the off season, the not-so-nice places had low rates that some of our families could afford, so her school saw an influx of students over the winter. She was committed to providing for the needs of her students. Snacks and breakfast items that could be warmed in the classroom microwave were available for anyone who needed them. She worked consciously on creating a welcoming classroom environment and wove many cooperative learning activities into her lessons that supported the social-emotional needs of her students. The school also had a principal who advocated for students experiencing homelessness and provided state leadership with insights about our students’ needs. The LEA had a strong McKinney-Vento program, so students were sure to stay in the school despite the increasing hotel rates as the temperature increased in the spring. Seeing the support across for our students across all those levels makes a difference.

What do you most want teachers to know about their role supporting students experiencing homelessness?   

Teachers can inspire students or demoralize them. They need to know what great power they hold in the lives of their students. We need to support our teachers by acknowledging their importance in our work, ensuring they have the knowledge and skills to serve our students, and doing a better job of reaching out to them and then listening to their voices as we navigate our future work.

Five Questions with Jo Zimmer: Expanding Access to Host Homes for Unaccompanied Youth

Jo Zimmer, MPAE, owner of Beyond-the-Box Strategies, LLC, brings more than 20 years’ experience in safety net programs, most recently to the 28-county Rural Oregon Continuum of Care (ROCC), in her contracted role as Consultant/Coordinator for the Oregon team’s State Partnerships on Student Homelessness Project. By helping agencies and entities cooperatively address issues of housing, homelessness, and poverty in rural Oregon, she hopes to assist communities in doing “better” with less and reframe traditional thinking about funding and service delivery.

Additionally, Jo is a member of the Code Amendments Task Force in Albany, Oregon; Commissioner/Chair of the Community Development Commission in Albany, Oregon; a member of the Oregon DHS Homeless Youth Advisory Board; former Chair of the Homeless Engagement and Resource Team (HEART) in Albany, Oregon; Advisory Board Member of Jackson Street Youth Services in Corvallis, Oregon; and a participant in the OHCS Supported Housing Strategic Workgroup.

What does youth homelessness in Oregon look like?

Close to four percent of Oregon’s public school students are homeless, and nearly 17% of those students are unaccompanied by parents or guardians.

Oregon’s 2018-2019 school year numbers of youth experiencing homelessness reflect stark realities [1]:

  1. 3.88% (22,215) of the total number of enrolled students K-12 were identified as experiencing homelessness; 45% of these students are located in mostly rural counties
  2. 17% (3,700) of all students experiencing homelessness were unaccompanied (not in physical custody of parent or legal guardian)
  3. 7% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were sheltered when they were first identified as homeless (43% of which were rural)
  4. 5% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were unsheltered when they were first identified as homeless (50% of which were rural)
  5. 88% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were staying with others when they were first identified as homeless (44% of which were rural)
  6. Fewer than 1% of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness were living in motels/hotels when they were first identified as homeless (38% of which were rural)

While Oregon school districts are consistently successful at connecting unaccompanied youth with educational services and supports, the biggest barrier to high school graduation and overall school success for these young people is often the lack of a decent, regular, and safe place to sleep.

Tell us a little bit about Oregon’s host homes: how do host homes in Oregon help promote high school graduation for students experiencing homelessness?

The Scaling Up Second Home Initiative (SUSHI) grant was written to improve statewide information-sharing about alternative housing options for unaccompanied youth that support their efforts to complete high school. Specifically, we sought to encourage community-supported safe and stable housing options that keep youth connected to “home.”

We believe and have found that students who are safely supported in “home-like” environments fare far better in school: one local host home program boasts a 95% graduation rate of its participating students compared to Oregon’s statewide average of 53%.

Part of our initiative’s information-gathering involved building an inventory of host home-like opportunities and noting potential future host homes and/or future programming options. While the Second Home program facilitated through Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon is the specific host home model shared during our community presentations, the state does not have an “official” host home model at this time. Rather, a number of optional models (including those espoused by Point Source Youth; Mason County, Washington; and Homeless Youth Connection, Arizona [2], among others), and programming comparisons, have been offered as available options.

To participate in the Second Home program, families or individuals can apply to be hosts; applications are followed by a background check and home visit. During the home visits, potential hosts are challenged to think critically about what hosting a student might look like and are encouraged to consider what their own healthy boundaries might look like, including describing their preferences for sharing a home. Once a host has applied and is approved, the wait begins for referral of a specific youth from a McKinney-Vento liaison. Similarly, prospective host home youth complete applications and participate in interviews in which youth reflect on their needs for housing. They are then offered the opportunity to meet with potential hosts and begin the preliminary conversation about living together. If all goes well, both student and host are offered a reflective 24-hour period after which host can offer space to a student and a student can accept or decline the offer. Once a student and host are connected and a living agreement has been mediated through a local dispute resolution center, there is follow up and engagement relating to the student’s professional development and subsequent housing needs as they evolve and grow through educational success.

We believe and have found that students who are safely supported in “home-like” environments fare far better in school: one local host home program boasts a 95% graduation rate of its participating students compared to Oregon’s statewide average of 53%. For this purpose, “home-like” references degrees of student integration within respective host home environments. Those degrees of integration are part of agreements negotiated prior to actual housing through conversation between local dispute resolution centers, the potential host home, and respective youth.

Why is it important to enhance promotion of the host homes in Oregon? Do you have additional goals beyond promotion of host homes?

In spite of Oregon’s large number of unaccompanied homeless youth, the funding dedicated for use toward the typical runaway and homeless youth (RHY) population remains consistently low, at approximately $3.575 million per biennium. This population was also largely overlooked in the recently released statewide housing plan and statewide shelter study[3] (foster youth were specifically referenced as a population service gap, but not the larger RHY population).

Additionally, Oregon’s approach to issues of housing and homelessness is in considerable flux, ranging from statewide policy-making, data review, and programming redesign to localized, grassroots, and oftentimes regional conversations and collaboration. While the state’s legislature has responded to the expanding housing/unhousing crises with unprecedented amounts of funding and directives for new affordable housing, efforts to address specific issues for homeless and/or unaccompanied youth ages 12 to 24 remain largely off the radar.

The Oregon State Partnerships Project’s primary goal has been to increase the high school graduation rate of students experiencing homelessness. The Oregon Department of Education and the SUSHI team has worked to address this goal by expanding awareness of and opportunities for building and supporting host homes and supportive programs in a minimum of six statewide locations; creating a more uniform data collection platform for McKinney-Vento liaisons; and increasing local community collaborations between school districts, dispute resolution centers, housing providers, and others.

What are your goals for your regional host home forums? How did you decide which communities to visit?

The host home forums were scheduled concurrent with the fall regional McKinney-Vento liaison and foster care points of contact trainings; many attendees stayed for all three presentations. The primary goals for these forums were to increase awareness of the host home concept generally; to begin noting inventory of any existing programming, whether informal or formal; and to better understand continuing homeless student service gaps. As identified in the state’s previously referenced Shelter Study (see footnote 5), currently only 436 beds statewide are held solely for unaccompanied youth; school year 2018-2019 numbers counted 3,704 unaccompanied homeless students.

The primary goals for these forums were to increase awareness of the host home concept generally; to begin noting inventory of any existing programming, whether informal or formal; and to better understand continuing homeless student service gaps.

Choosing the most appropriate – and initial – communities to visit came down to two primary goals: connecting host home information to areas potentially interested in expanding the Second Home model specifically, and ensuring the greatest information-sharing across very rural locations (often with shared populations and even shared resources) with general host home models and practices. By including state agencies (OHCS and Department of Human Services) we sought to carry these messages beyond the initial scope of our plan. Ultimately, a strong interest of this team has been to draft recommended processes to provide information and coordination of resources on a regular basis, and to be ready to assist with programming development at whatever level communities might support.

In addition to the statewide forums conducted through December 2019, the SUSHI team looks forward to scheduling additional community conversations as requested. We presented at the state homeless coalition conference in September 2019 and at the state migrant conference in November 2019. This month (January 2020), SchoolHouse Connection’s Patricia Julianelle will serve as a presenter for the Oregon Association on Comprehensive Education Liaison Symposium in Seaside, Oregon. Ms. Julianelle will also serve as keynote speaker during a final SUSHI convening event planned in the Willamette Valley immediately preceding the symposium. It is during this final event where lessons learned from our grant efforts and recommendations for next steps will be shared and discussed.

What were some of your key takeaways after the forums, and is there anything you will do differently in the future?

Key takeaways from the forums: host homes are already a known and popular strategy in many if not most Oregon communities, though they are usually organically developed and receive limited formal support. That said, coordinated training and support (i.e. having a statewide lead and the structure provided by regional teams) are desperately needed and would be welcomed. We would like to schedule follow-up visits to some communities to address secondary interests (i.e. supporting McKinney-Vento liaisons and RHY providers in sharing concerns and successful strategies with school and community leaders). Additionally, we have determined that the range of potential invitees should extend beyond McKinney-Vento liaisons; for example, we learned that one community’s fire department chief already provides shelter for unaccompanied youth and that 211 information regarding homeless services would serve as a great informational resource during telephonic intake conversations with families and youth. Finally, we confirm that local emergency youth shelters and supportive programming (including transitional living programs), where located, must continue to be part of any conversation adding host home concepts into the continuum of relevant services. 

As for what we could do differently, we’d like to deepen our prepared presentations and provide opportunities for more organic sharing amongst attendees. We also need to note locations statewide of operating host home programs (where applicable) and collect more specific information about currently connected partners and where partnering gaps exist. We can also start to consider the possibility of the next iteration of this grant, including the building out of our network/learning cohort that was originally intended to develop the initial bones of a statewide plan.

[1]; various reports



Five Questions with Sheri Hanni and Adrianne Watkins: Supporting Chronically Absent Students in Rural Communities

Sheri Hanni

Sheri Hanni is the K-12 Program Coordinator for the Butte County Office of Education’s (BCOE) Student Attendance Review Board (SARB). Having worked for BCOE for 25 years, she also serves as the county lead for the Multi-Tiered System of Support state-wide initiative and as a Coordinated District Support (CDS) Team member, which provides training, coaching, and support primarily to districts qualifying for Differentiated Assistance due to low ratings on the State Dashboard.

Adrianne Watkins is a Case Manager for the BCOE’s Homeless Education Program. She has worked for BCOE for six-and-a-half years, providing support to students and their families who are experiencing homelessness and/or have entered the SARB process. Her primary role is to advocate for the educational rights of homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and to provide case management support to students. She serves as a liaison between the family and the school systems, ensuring that educational needs are met, linking families with local resources, and helping to identify and address barriers to attendance.

Butte County is located in rural northern California, approximately 80 miles north of Sacramento. It is comprised of 13 school districts serving 33,000 students, four of which are single-school districts primarily located in the foothills of Butte County. Approximately 62% of the student population is identified as low socio-economic status, and 2.5% of students were identified as experiencing homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year. BCOE’s homeless education program provides direct services to approximately 500 students each year.  

What are some of the unique needs of your district? How do these unique needs affect student attendance?

Sheri: Butte County, like many rural areas, is impacted by high rates of unemployment, single-parent households, and poverty–often generational poverty. Butte County has also been identified as having the highest rate of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACES) in the state. There is a lack of mental health providers as well as a shortage of medical doctors serving our area. Many of our families do not have a regular doctor, so if a child is ill, they often spend a great deal of time waiting in emergency rooms or drop-in clinics–which leads them to miss time at school. Even when mental health and medical services are available, transportation is a barrier for many families. 

We often hear from families that they have one working vehicle or limited money for gas. If someone has an appointment, they need to do all their errands and shopping that same day—which means that the whole family needs to go. If parents cannot finish their errands and appointments in time to pick up their kids from school, the children don’t attend school that day. Or, if the kids miss the bus, they don’t go to school. We have students with mental health challenges who have anxiety about attending school. On especially difficult days, parents can struggle to get their kids to school, resulting in missed days. Many of our families have a lack of trust in school staff, often due to their own school experience, so they may not communicate challenges that prevent them from getting their kids to school, or getting the support they need.

ALL school staff need training on how to identify when a student may be experiencing trauma or a mental health challenge and how to communicate in a caring, supportive way. Many districts provide trauma-sensitive training to all staff, including classified personnel such as bus drivers, food service staff, campus supervisors, etc. This has been beneficial in identifying when a student may need additional help. Because challenging behaviors often appear during unstructured time during the school day, training ALL staff can make the difference for children.

Chronic Absenteeism in Butte County
Chronic Absenteeism in Butte County

In your district, how do you identify students experiencing homelessness who are chronically absent? Do you collaborate with your district’s homeless education liaison–and, if so, how?

Adrianne: I think chronic absence is an early indicator to school staff that prompts student check-ins, often revealing housing instability in the process. In collaboration with targeted case managers, student advocates, and district homeless liaisons, students who are identified as homeless through early intervention are then referred to our program. Our homeless education program is able to provide supportive services to mitigate attendance concerns by assisting with transportation (e.g. providing gas cards, bus passes, or advocating for district transportation). For any students who were not initially identified through this process, they are eventually identified through the School Attendance Review Board (SARB) process.  

The School Attendance Review Board is a panel of representatives from schools and community agencies that regularly hold meetings with families of students showing attendance concerns in order to provide support and interventions to alleviate barriers to attendance.  I have the opportunity to attend the SARB meetings for our districts, giving me the chance to participate in the collaborative efforts to establish a plan for successful attendance. 

Families often disclose their homelessness for the first time at the SARB hearings, as their living situation is often self-reported as a contributing factor to the attendance issues. We often hear that an eviction left a family displaced, living outside of the district boundary lines, either living in a shelter or a temporary living arrangement, or a domestic violence situation that has forced a parent and their child(ren) to relocate to another city in order to access confidential, emergency shelter. In these scenarios, the SARB panel works to link the family with supportive services on the spot, such as establishing a transportation plan in order to keep the student in their school of origin, placing a referral for counseling services, and ensuring that the family is able to leave the meeting with resources in hand for housing programs, food assistance, and other basic needs.

 A specific case that comes to mind is that of a mother who escaped a domestic violence situation and had to seek emergency shelter 25 miles away from her child’s school. There was not much time left in the school year, so enrolling in the local school did not seem to be in the child’s best interest, nor was the daily commute feasible for the parent at the time. With close collaboration between our office and the school district, I was able to advocate for a temporary independent study arrangement to allow her child to complete the school year successfully. I picked up the paperwork from the school site, delivered it to the family at their new location, returned completed paperwork, and also submitted the completed school work on behalf of the family, since they were without reliable transportation at the time. This arrangement promoted school stability for the child.

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

Adrianne: Frequent moves. The current housing crisis in our community, paired with the lack of shelter facilities and affordable housing, often means that displaced families find themselves living “doubled-up” (i.e. couch surfing, or staying temporarily with other people). This can leave students living outside of their school district, and, in a rural area, far from services and support. The students that I work with also often experience multiple moves throughout the school year. For example, I worked with a student who was entering the 7th grade with a cumulative file that reflected 14 different school changes. This is a testament to how challenging it can be for families to be able to continue to access their child’s school with each unexpected and abrupt move that they may experience. When they are unaware of their rights to school of origin and transportation support, they often end up enrolling their child in the nearest school for the sake of accessing the school bus or being able to walk or bike to campus.  Families that experience frequent moves often find themselves in situations where a common issue such as car trouble can leave their child unable to access school for days at a time, as they are so far away from the campus, support systems, and public transit options.

Berry Creek School, one of four school-single districts, located in the foothills of Butte County, approximately 25 miles from Oroville, the nearest town. It serves approximately 60 students in multi-grade classrooms.

Sheri: These frequent moves also make it difficult for families to access or maintain support services.  Some of our service providers close cases if they cannot contact the family or don’t receive calls back.  This, combined with transportation challenges, often results in families being dropped from services and having to restart the application process. 

What strategies, programs, or policies do you use to enable consistent attendance? Do you leverage data in any way?

Sheri: We regularly provide education to school staff on policies related to the education of homeless students. Our Student Attendance Review Boards include school and community representatives who understand the challenges unique to students experiencing homelessness and are willing to provide whatever support is needed for students to be successful in the school setting. One advantage of being rural is that we are familiar with each other and our programs so we can easily collaborate on behalf of our students and families. It is often the relationships that make a difference. Our School Ties program provides case management to homeless students and families and works closely with all of our districts and schools. The Coordinated District Support Team provides training and coaching around student behavior, including positive alternatives to suspension such as a focus on social-emotional learning, mental wellness, trauma-responsive practices, student-staff relationships, and more. We customize support for districts based on their data. 

County Office of Education, School Ties.

California has a statewide data system, the California Dashboard, that provides easily accessible data on student groups in the areas of academics, behavior, and chronic absence. Many of our schools participate in the California Healthy Kids Survey, which provides additional data on school culture. Our work with districts and sites is focused on systems and the use of data to identify root causes of barriers for students. When we can better identify the root cause of a challenge, we can better select the appropriate supports and interventions that will bring positive change for all students–especially our most vulnerable student groups.

Recognizing that there’s no silver bullet, what is your “top tip” for supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?

Sheri: In my experience as a County Office of Education Coordinator, we see the greatest success when we can assist schools and/or districts with implementing changes that are focused on the identified needs of our students. The biggest celebration of the past year or so has probably been witnessing the shift in mindset of so many educators in how we perceive and respond to students who are struggling. 

Oftentimes, students don’t want to say that they are homeless–but when educators understand the specific struggles and indicators, they can intervene in non-judgmental, supportive ways that respect the students’ confidentiality and show them that there are people who will help. 

I am proud to work with so many who go above and beyond for our homeless students, and all who are facing barriers to education.  It’s hard work, but together I believe we are making a difference for young people in Butte County.

Adrianne: From the case management perspective, I would emphasize the importance of fostering connection, collaboration, and competency in homeless students’ rights.

In my experience, students and parents are so fearful of revealing their housing status. Many parents have disclosed to me their fear of losing their children to protective services if they were to simply admit to being homeless. Perhaps this perpetuates a disconnect between the school and the family in such cases, where outreach services are triggered due to attendance concerns, yet a parent is resistant to engage in services out of fear of the consequences of disclosing their homelessness. I think it is so critical that rapport is established with parents, and that the school culture leaves a parent feeling safe enough to disclose their living situation and to ask for support. Imagine if all families could start out the school year feeling comfortable enough to communicate their situation and establish connections with school staff from Day One. We can’t support our students appropriately if we aren’t aware of their situation. Once fully aware, we can “meet them where they’re at.”  

I truly believe that connection and collaboration can make a difference in a child returning to school or not. For instance, when a family that does not have a personal vehicle or a working phone and lives outside of public transit access, it just takes one staff member who has rapport with the student and is aware of their living situation to advocate for district transportation so that the child can access school no matter where they may be staying.

I would also emphasize the importance of ensuring competency in the protections in place under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Although I am one person at the county level with the role of advocating for homeless students, I could not do my job without the assistance of dedicated school staff. Their connection with their students, their insights into their situations, and their commitment to advocate for their students and go above and beyond to assist students in each unique situation is what makes the difference. This could look very different if staff were not well-versed in homeless student rights. The better we train all our campus staff, the earlier our homeless students are identified, provided with supportive services, and informed of their education rights. The more awareness and support that is available, the less powerful the stigma becomes.

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.

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 (

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. 

Five Questions with Sue Lenahan: Addressing Chronic Absenteeism

This piece by Homeless Education Liaison Sue Lenahan is the first 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.

Sue Lenahan is both a middle school counselor and a homeless education local school district liaison from Big Rapids Public Schools in central Michigan. She has served as a homeless liaison for approximately nine years, previously serving in Evart Public Schools, and currently shares her homeless liaison duties with high school counselor Julie Aldrich. Currently, there are 2,021 students enrolled in Big Rapids Public Schools. They attend one comprehensive high school, one alternative education virtual high school, one middle school, and two elementary schools. Within the school district, there are approximately 70 students who have been identified as homeless under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

How do you identify students experiencing homelessness who are chronically absent?

There is a part of me that wishes I could say that I regularly scan through attendance data and identify all of the students who are having absenteeism as a chronic problem, but what actually happens to identify chronically absent homeless students in our district is a little more complex than that. Several factors come into play in our support of all students, but it is the strong relationships between staff that are created and maintained that make things work. As a homeless liaison, it is imperative that I maintain close, supportive relationships not only with the students and their families, but also with the teachers, the office staff, the paraprofessionals, the school nurse, and the food service department. I may learn about a student’s attendance problems while reviewing data, but more than likely one of the teachers will contact me voicing their concern–or the attendance clerk will let me know of a student’s attendance so that I can make additional contact with the family. Or our food service department might reach out to me and let me know that a particular homeless student hasn’t eaten lunch for a number of days. It is definitely team work that makes all of this happen, but if I didn’t consciously nurture the relationships I have with the other members of this complex team, the support we offer the students would be much harder to accomplish.

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

Many homeless students are enmeshed in generational poverty. They don’t always know or have role models who have modeled what some researchers refer to as the “hidden rules of the middle class.”  It’s easy for them to feel overwhelmed by something that may be no big deal for another student who has a solid living situation with working parents. For example, they may not have an alarm clock to wake them in the morning–or they often set an alarm and forget to turn it on. Sometimes the children are the only ones who have to get up and out of the house in the morning, and therefore may have to get ready for school on their own. Growing up in these circumstances can be daunting–leading to chronic absenteeism. Another common cause of chronic absence is a lack of transportation. If the student misses the school bus and the parent doesn’t have a working vehicle, the student just doesn’t come to school. A lack of transportation also keeps the parents from getting the kids to the clinic if they are sick, and then the kids miss more school due to being sick. It’s a vicious cycle.

What strategies do you use to enable consistent attendance? Do you leverage data in any way?

This is a tough one, but again I’m going to fall back on the need for positive relationships. If the student knows me, or has a strong relationship with a teacher, that relationship can work wonders. I will often reach out to parents via their cell phone – everyone has one! My approach is always one of concern and empathy. I do not call to penalize. I call to help. Life really is tough and it really is hard to fight the tough fight if you feel the deck is stacked against you. If the student is at home, I will conference with them over the phone, attempting to find out what the issues are, and how we can work through them. Once the student is back at school, I stay in close touch with him/her as well as with the teachers or other team members. I keep healthy snacks in my office. Kids are always hungry! A kind word and a handful of trail mix can work miracles!

I do use data when I work with the students–but I use it as a dialogue and goal-setting tool. We can cross-reference attendance data with grades in classes and see a direct correlation. ALL students want to get good grades — no matter if they act like it or not. We use the data to set goals and refer to data again when we reflect on goal-attainment. I’ve held “lunch bunch” groups that include homeless students with chronic absenteeism–they love that. Students love to have an invitation to a special place to have their lunch and share a little dialogue in a welcoming area that is much less chaotic than a school cafeteria. Having lunch with the counselor and a small group of students (between three to five) opens the door to talk about school, relationships, and future goals; to talk about who they are and what’s important to them. It gives them a reason to come to school. Again: relationships are essential.

Does your district implement any attendance programs or policies that support the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?

From day one, as federal law requires, we get the kids in school. We don’t wait for all of the paperwork–we get them in school. We have centralized enrollment in our district and the folks at the district office who enroll the students let me know right away if the student comes from a transitional living situation that may qualify as homeless. 

Additionally, our attendance clerk will always check with me if she knows of a homeless family that is about to be referred to our truancy officer, and will defer to my judgement as to whether or not a referral to truancy is the appropriate next step. This happened just last week, actually. I was able to have a lengthy conversation with the mother over the phone. Her kids had been ill, she was ill, and they were dealing with head lice on top of it. I was able to talk with her long enough to gain her trust by simply listening with empathy–while also being honest with her about the possibility of truancy repercussions. The kids were in school the next day, and the mother and children were able to meet with our school nurse and gain some assistance for the lice issues, as well as advice on visiting the clinic.

Recognizing that there’s no silver bullet, what is your “top tip” for supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness?

You may have already guessed what my top tip might be: supportive relationships! This is simply essential. Get to know the kids and their families. Get to know the teachers, office staff, all of the other folks who make this educational merry-go-round continue to function. Have compassion and work from a place of empathy. Seek first to understand! Follow the Golden Rule!  Be nice! Operate under the umbrella of Dignity and Respect.  

The person designated as a homeless liaison in a school district usually has that duty added on to an already full-time job. Supporting all homeless students and families is not something that can be accomplished in isolation. Everyone matters.