Homeless Students Especially Vulnerable to Academic Setbacks, Educators Say

The number of homeless students attending school in Dakota County has ballooned in the last several years, according to school district data.

Chris Belmont has a sixth sense for knowing which students are homeless.

"It's amazing how it manifests itself in the school. I can see a kid and tell that they're in crisis—it's just the look: They're literally in a state of panic," said Belmont, the associate principal at the alternative high school. "The only thing I can compare it to is if you were in foreign country and had lost your passport. That is how they're acting."

Belmont's experience is unusual. For most school administrators and faculty, identifying homeless students is a challenge.

"How do you know they're homeless? How do you prove it? One of the most difficult things is every person might define it differently," said Chris Limdholm, assistant superintendent in School District 191, which covers Burnsville-Eagan-Savage. "If I'm homeless does that mean I'm living with a buddy? Is it a two-week deal or six months? The reality is that it's fuzzy."

During the 2011-2012 school year, the Burnsville-Eagan-School District identified 78 total students as homeless. While District 191 did not have definitive numbers showing long-term trends, Lindholm said, other districts have seen a marked increase in the number of homeless students officially on file.

In District 197, the West St. Paul-Mendota Height-Eagan District, the number of homeless students on file has ballooned over the last six years, from 11 in 2006 to 45 in 2012. District 196 in Apple Valley, Eagan and Rosemount has seen a significant increase as well, from 48 students during 2006-2007 to 199 in 2011-2012.

Officials in both districts said the influx could be attributed to a number of factors: Greater awareness of the special services the districts provide to homeless students, better means of identifying those who are homeless or an actual increase in homelessness among pupils due to the economic downturn. 

Whatever the case may be, Lindholm cautions that the numbers could still be deceptively low.

The Impact on Students

Administrators have no shortage of heart-rending experiences with homeless students.

"All of them kind of tug at your heartstrings a little bit. These are young people that really don't have control over what's happening in the lives of the adults they live with," said Greg Clausen, former principal and now a federal and state program specialist for District 196. "They're kind of at the mercy of what's happening … with the family."

Rarely do these experiences conform to stereotypes surrounding homelessness, however.

"How I thought of homeless before working here was living in a van with your family. That's not really what it is," Belmont said. "It's way more complex than that."

Consider the case of a recent graduate from the Burnsville Alternative High School, a girl who had been bouncing around the homes of friends and acquaintances for almost half of her short life. 

"She'd literally been slipping through the cracks since age 10," Belmont said. 

The girl had been removed from her family and sent to live with her aunt, Belmont said. But her aunt never actually took her in, so she spent the next seven years in a state of constant instability, moving from one couch to another. The situation came to a head five months into her junior year, when a classmate she was staying with issued an ultimatum: Pay rent or you're leaving.

In the end, the girl stayed with her aunt until graduation, but it wasn't a home. It was merely a place to keep her stuff.

"When I needed to go somewhere as a kid, my mom would wake me up, feed me and put me in the minivan and take me there. None of that ever existed for her," Belmont said. "It's a constant struggle for survival that most people don't need to consider. It truly is a different beast."

Economic Struggles Become Academic Struggles

The student described by Belmont was an extreme case, but her struggle is emblematic of the uphill climb homeless children face: When it comes to learning, a rambling, transient existence is the enemy.

"When you switch schools your subject matter might not line up. Your eighth period social studies might be civics or geography in another school. In elementary school, even if it is math or reading, the curriculum could be entirely different from district to district," Lindholm said.

"We're in a system—for good or bad—that's really an assembly line system. Think about teachers on an assembly line and kids moving in front: When a kid goes away and comes back, where do they hop on the assembly line?" Lindholm continued. "The train is already halfway down the track. You can't start at square one, you start in the middle. How can I succeed in the middle if I haven't been here for the first half?"

Then there's the psychological trauma of being homeless. It is difficult, if not impossible, to learn in the thick of a fight for basic survival, school officials said.

"The fear of the unknown impacts their ability to concentrate at school," said Marcy Doud, director of special programs in District 197.

"Success happens when families find a safe and consistent place to live and sleep," said Doud. "When basic necessities are provided ... the student comes to school able and ready to learn."

For the most part, however, the long-term academic consequences of homelessness are often severe—a fact borne out by the high incidence of homelessness in the population at the Burnsville Alternative High. Of those enrolled at the school for the 2011-2012 school year, 45 of 250 in the student body were struggling with some degree of homelessness. 

"It's one of the key indicators for why we have students here. They all have different stories, but this is one of the primary ones," Belmont said. "It's as tough, if not tougher, than other issues."

Lindholm agreed.

"The majority of homeless kids they don't just move once. They move two or three times in a school year, from one temporary shelter to another to another," Lindholm said. "That is a wasted school year: It is impossible to educate a child well in a year like that. It's brutal for a kid." 

The Law

Educators interviewed for this story agree: Stability is essential for learning. For this reason, schools often must act as an anchor for kids in distress, and in some ways subsume the role of the lost home. This is precisely the purpose of the McKinney-Vento law, a piece of state legislation that has governed school responses to homeless students for more than 10 years. 

The law establishes a specific fund for students who are officially classified by their home district as homeless, which provides for their transportation to and from their school of origin—no matter where they may find shelter. 

"The student's home may have gone away, but they still have their same classroom routine. They're not completely uprooted," Lindholm said.

The law only provides for partial funding, however, which is reimbursed to the district after the bills come in.

"It isn't 100-percent reimbursed. One of the difficulties is what if a family moves to a shelter or a temporary dwelling that is a long ways away?" Lindholm said. "First, is it good for the student to spend three hours round trip on a bus? Second, that's a huge cost to the district and the state of Minnesota, so it's a really difficult judgment call."

The statute is unclear about where the cut off point might be, or who will make the decision. The one guiding phrase is that the districts must maintain normalcy for the homeless student as long as that effort would be "within reason."

In spite of these legal vagaries, Lindholm credited the state for recognizing that it's best for kids to stay in their schools. Nevertheless, he feels that the problems of homeless students are deeply intertwined with the nature of Western schooling itself, and will not be adequately addressed until the system itself goes through a transformation. As he sees it, schools are working on an outdated model based on an agrarian schedule that is incompatible with 21st century life—homeless or not. 

"What you're asking for is not a policy or law, it's a completely different way of doing business. I don't think anyone knows what that might look like," Lindholm said. "We're not there yet as a system."

Editor's Note: Homelessness rates in Dakota County and other suburban communities in Minnesota have risen substantially in the last five years. This article is part of a Patch series exploring that trend. Click on the links below to read other articles on the topic.

  • Aug. 13
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