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Schools Contend With Growing Population of Homeless Students

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Along the old road between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, there’s a string of bad-luck towns with worn-out motels offering weekly rates. On a recent weekday afternoon, workers at one wore white surgical masks as they cleaned out a second-floor room with kitchenette.

These are the kinds of places where far too many American families with children have retreated, after losing their houses to foreclosure or their apartments to eviction, after losing their jobs to the sagging economy. They call this “temporary housing,” on forms filed with school districts.

Last spring, there were more than 1 million homeless students in America, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Youth and Children (NAEHYC). “There is homeless everywhere,” says NAEHYC policy director Barbara Duffield. In many districts, the numbers have grown by 100 percent over the past two years.

Those children bring countless challenges to their classrooms. How do you find a quiet place for homework in a two-bedroom apartment that you’re sharing with your mom, your two sisters, your aunt, her boyfriend, and your two cousins too? How do you concentrate on Civil War history when domestic battles in the local women’s shelter are keeping you up at night?

That’s why NEA Today is working on a story about homeless students. With numbers soaring – and little hope that they’ll suddenly abate – we know that this is an issue that you care about. It’s also one that we believe you can help us – and your colleagues – with.

In Howard County, Maryland, where the roads range from former farmland with McMansion housing to America’s first planned community, the school district’s experienced homeless liaison has seen rapid growth in her responsibilities over the past few years. In 2003, she had 222 homeless students. In 2008, she had nearly 400 – an increase of 72 percent.

But it’s not all bad news in Howard County. Cathy Henry, the liaison, also can point to remarkable achievements by her homeless students. Despite the odds – the noisy nights, the skipped breakfasts, the long rides to school from shelters – her kids actually are doing quite well in school.

With money from federal grants specifically for homeless students, Henry coordinates a network of highly qualified tutors who meet with students after and before school, who visit them at home and in shelters. As a result, her homeless kids actually scored higher on reading and math assessments, on average, than other Howard County students who receive free or reduced price lunch. Last year, 77 percent of Howard’s homeless kids scored at a proficient or advanced level in the state’s reading tests.

“We believe it’s the extra TLC,” Henry says.

We also believe that it’s the work by NEA members, like Henry, that make a difference in the lives of homeless children. We invite you to tell us what you or your colleagues are seeing and doing in your districts.


Report on homeless students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC


New York Times Article on Homeless Students