2020-21 State Initiatives on Student Homelessness

Data show that students experiencing homelessness have among the lowest high school graduation rates of any student population – the result of mobility, invisibility, and multiple traumas beyond the lack of housing. Failing to receive a high school diploma makes it far more likely for these students to continue to experience homelessness in the future, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and housing instability. The adverse impacts of homelessness begin in early childhood, and continue as barriers to postsecondary access and completion. As more data becomes available about homeless students’ educational participation and outcomes, it is essential that this vulnerable population is intentionally embedded in action plans and dedicated resources to increase educational opportunity and equity. 

The campaign has set three ambitious goals for supporting children and youth experiencing homelessness:

Goal #1

By 2026, young children experiencing homelessness will participate in quality early childhood programs at the same rate as their housed peers.

Goal #2

A 90% high school graduation rate for homeless students by 2030.

Goal #3

A 60% postsecondary attainment rate for homeless students by 2034.

To meet this need, Education Leads Home (ELH) was launched in 2018. ELH is a national initiative coordinated by SchoolHouse Connection focused on improving educational and life outcomes for children and youth who experience homelessness. ELH’s vision is a long-term, permanent reduction in homelessness through increased educational attainment. The initiative seeks to raise awareness of key challenges and increase implementation of proven practices and policies that improve educational outcomes, from early childhood through postsecondary, for one of the country’s most vulnerable student populations. 

ELH seeks to meet these goals by supporting teams of state leaders, including state educational agency homeless coordinators, Head Start State Collaboration Offices, institutions of higher education, advocates, and homeless service providers. SchoolHouse Connection facilitates and provides support to state teams through:

  • Mini-grants. During the 2020-2021 school year, the ELH initiative awarded mini-grants to 12 state teams to build the work within their state;
  • Customized strategic support, including bi-monthly state team check-in calls, goal-setting, and customized action roadmaps; 
  • A monthly community of practice virtual session which convened all state teams and centered on real-world problems of practice and peer troubleshooting.

SHC is proud of the progress made to date by state teams, which are summarized in this document. 

New Data Emphasizes the Challenges Students Experiencing Homelessness Face in Graduating High School

By Matthew Atwell, Senior Researcher at Civic, a partner of the Education Leads Home Campaign

On March 26, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education released data on high school graduation rates for the 2018-19 school year, revealing an all-time high of 85.8 percent. This marks a slight increase from the 85.3 percent graduation rate for the class of 2018. Encouragingly, the rate of gain for most student subgroups outpaced the national average’s increase of 0.5 percentage points, helping to close equity gaps for historically underserved communities.

For the second year in a row, the U.S. Department of Education did not release a national graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness due to missing data from one state. Cohort counts from 49 states and the District of Columbia, however, show a national graduation rate of 67.7 percent, up slightly from 67.5 percent in 2018.

The data show that graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness differ significantly state to state, ranging from a low of 49 percent in the District of Columbia and Minnesota, to a high of 86 percent in New Hampshire. The significant discrepancy of graduation rates across states bears added scrutiny.

At 67.7 percent, the graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness is among the lowest of all students in the country. Similarly, an increase of 0.2 percentage points is the smallest gains of any subgroup in the class of 2019, emphasizing the challenges students experiencing homelessness face that go above and beyond conventional poverty. To this point, the graduation rate for low-income students reached 80 percent for the first time, a rate 12.3 percentage points greater than that of students experiencing homelessness.

Importantly, this marks the final year of data prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing an important baseline to understand the virus’ impacts. It is likely that the economic crisis spurred by the pandemic has increased homelessness. Yet, new survey data indicate fewer students experiencing homelessness are being identified and enrolled by schools, with significant unmet needs remaining for these children and youth.

Thankfully, the recent American Rescue Plan Act provides dedicated funding to support the identification, enrollment, and full participation of students experiencing homelessness. With the right supports, these students can graduate at the same rate as their peers. Across the country, there are emerging success strategies that schools and districts can implement to better serve these students.

The Education Leads Home campaign has a goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness by 2030. While the slight increase in 2019 marks progress, the nation will have to redouble its efforts to reach this goal, especially as families and youth deal with the challenges of COVID-19. Doing so will build a more equitable education system and work to break cycles of intergenerational poverty and homelessness.

Strategies for Success Report Release 2020

Come hear from experts, McKinney-Vento Liaisons, and young people on how schools and districts can support students experiencing homelessness.

The Education Leads Home campaign invites you to join them on Tuesday, October 20 at 2:00pm E.T. to learn about their new report, Strategies for Success: Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness, authored by Civic and sponsored by The Raikes Foundation.

The event will focus on the lessons learned from interviews with educators in Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, and Virginia to identify strategies schools and districts are using to successfully mitigate the challenges students experiencing homelessness face in attending and succeeding in school. It will feature perspectives from a homeless liaison, a student who has experienced homelessness, and student homelessness policy experts to discuss ways schools and districts can support students experiencing homelessness, especially in the current environment.

A Zoom link will be provided upon registering.

Strategies for Success: Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness

Published July 2020

Strategies for Success: Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness, authored by Civic and sponsored by The Raikes Foundation, is based on interviews with educators in Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, and Virginia to identify strategies school and districts are using to successfully mitigate the challenges students experiencing homelessness face in attending and succeeding in school.

The report was written in partnership with Building Changes, a Washington State-based nonprofit, aimed at identifying replicable practices for schools on how best to meet the needs of their students experiencing homelessness. It services as an illustrative supplement to Building Changes’ Menu of Strategies, a working collection of research-based practices and recommendations to help schools and districts support students and families experiencing homelessness.

Over 1.5 million K-12 students were identified as experiencing homelessness in U.S. public schools during the 2017-18 school year. This is in addition to 1.2 million children under six-years-old who experienced homelessness in public early childhood programs in the same school year. Both of these numbers mark sizable increases over the past decade. Part of the reason for the increase may be due to schools and districts doing a better job of identifying students experiencing homelessness. Other factors, however, such as lack of affordable housing, persistent poverty, the opioid crisis, and increasing natural disasters contribute to this as well.

These millions of students experiencing homelessness are at the center of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Black and Hispanic high school students are more likely to experience homelessness than their White peers, significantly less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to experience homelessness as adults. In addition, all students experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools provide stability and food security for many students experiencing homelessness who do not have a place to ‘shelter in place’ or ‘stay at home.’

Data shows that high school students experiencing homelessness are five times more likely to go hungry than their housed peers. Additionally, a survey conducted by SchoolHouse Connection during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic showed that “mobile hotspots” and “funds for internet access and devices/technology” were among the most pressing needs of students experiencing homelessness in K-12 and postsecondary education.

Following school closures from the pandemic, liaisons were quick to find solutions for some of these issues. One school district offered ‘pay as you go’ phones for unaccompanied youth and hot spots for McKinney-Vento students without internet access. Other school districts have instituted curbside grocery pick-up, food delivery systems, and grocery store gift cards in response to the crisis.

Encouragingly, success stories throughout the nation show that with the right support, students experiencing homelessness can graduate from high school at the same rates as their peers.

Liaisons across the country are using robust McKinney-Vento homeless education programs to develop innovative supports for these 1.5 million K-12 students experiencing homelessness in the U.S. Some of these include basic needs and academic support; district nonprofit organizations; credit recovery programs; McKinney-Vento training; housing resources; cross-system collaborations; social and emotional learning; and transportation.

For example, Treasure House, a program in Spotsylvania County Public Schools, allows McKinney-Vento-identified families to ‘shop’ for food, clothing, and household needs once a month for free. Another program, Retirees Assisting with Transitional Students (RATS) in Fairfax County Public Schools, rehired retirees to drive students experiencing homelessness to school. 

These stories and many more validate the aspirations of those on the front lines of supporting such students: 88 percent of homeless student liaisons interviewed say they are optimistic regarding the potential of youth they work with to graduate from high school college- and career-ready.

Let’s Educate Every Child and Youth: Resources for Educators, Providers, Parents, Youth, and Families Experiencing Homelessness During the Pandemic

Earlier this year, public schools and early childhood programs reported the highest number of children and youth experiencing homelessness ever recorded – 1.5 million. This number is skyrocketing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is one home that all youth and children have in common: school.

In the midst of the current crisis, the role of schools has never been more critical – no matter where classrooms are this fall. Schools are required to identify, enroll, and serve homeless children and youth, but distance learning and other COVID-related complications mean it is easier than ever for them to fall through the cracks. It’s vital that families and youth who are homeless know their educational rights, and how to exercise them. 

To help spread the word and give communities a starting place for engaging with this issue, SchoolHouse Connection announces two public service announcements aimed at reaching families, educators, and community organizations and leaders. 

Whether you are a parent or youth experiencing homelessness or someone who works with families and children, the resources on THIS page are here to help, and we hope you will share them far and wide. It will take all of us working together to ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed. 

2020 Homeless Student State Snapshots

Each year, the Education Leads Home Campaign publishes Snapshots for all 50 State and the District of Columbia. The Snapshots provide the most up-to-date data on the number of homeless students identified and enrolled in public schools, the number of extremely poor children and youth experiencing homelessness, the percentage of children under the age of six experiencing homelessness, and the number of FASFA applications determined to be an unaccompanied homeless youth. These reports also show the numbers of homeless students identified in each state since 2013-14 and the high school graduation rates of all students, homeless students, and economically disadvantaged students across the state. 

Below you can find the 2020 update to your state’s snapshot. The 2020 state snapshots are based on 2017-2018 data, which are the most recent available. Education Leads Home will continue to monitor states’ progress and identify and share best practices to improve student outcomes in communities across the country. This data will allow experts and policymakers to understand the scale and context of their state’s student homelessness population and locally tailor policies to support their unique population.

Homeless State Snapshots

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] https://www.oregon.gov/ode/schools-and-districts/grants/esea/mckinney-vento/pages/default.aspx; various reports

[2] https://www.pointsourceyouth.org/host-homes; https://www.mason-co-host.org/what-we-do; http://hycaz.org/

[3] https://www.oregon.gov/ohcs/ISD/RA/Oregon-Statewide-Shelter-Study.pdf; https://www.oregon.gov/ohcs/pages/oshp.aspx.

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.

2/12/20 – Truancy v. Chronic Absenteeism: Supporting the Attendance of Students Experiencing Homelessness

Title: Truancy v. Chronic Absenteeism: Supporting the Attendance of Students Experiencing Homelessness

Almost 8 million students were chronically absent from schools during the 2015-2016 school year. Unsurprisingly, research shows that economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be chronically absent than the overall student population—but studies also indicate that students experiencing homelessness are chronically absent at rates even higher than their housed, low-income peers. While chronic absenteeism measures total absences, including excused and unexcused, truancy measures only unexcused absences–and the number of unexcused absences it takes for a student to be considered a “truant” differs by state. While it’s important to distinguish between truancy and chronic absence, communities that are successfully serving homeless students who are truant OR chronically absent are finding that supportive, community-driven efforts are most effective. During this webinar, two practitioners will speak about their work supporting the attendance of students experiencing homelessness–one from the school community perspective, and one from the community at large.


  • Katie Brown, Program Manager, Education Leads Home, SchoolHouse Connection
  • Tamara Vaughn-Walker, Juvenile Justice Council Coordinator, St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office
  • Rose Taphouse, Lansing School District Student Services Coordinator, Lansing School District, MI
  • Tina Giarla, Program Director, MA Coalition for the Homeless