Homeless students need school, community support, officials say
ALPENA — One in seven Alpena County students have been homeless at least once by the time they reach fifth grade.
Those students may struggle in school more than their peers who have never lost a home, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions.
Chronic absenteeism, frequent school transfers, and high discipline rates often associated with homelessness take a toll on test scores even after children find homes, according to Jennifer Erb-Downward, lead researcher for the study.
If officials can’t reduce their community’s homelessness numbers, they can still find ways to get kids to school, reduce school transfers, and help kids reengage with the classroom once they regain stable housing, Erb-Downward said.
“I would bet that most communities aren’t thinking about that at all,” she said. “But homelessness is very much a local issue.”
LOWER TEST SCORES
Standardized test scores indicate broad educational gaps between students who have and have not experienced homelessness.
About a quarter of Alpena County’s homeless students tested proficient in English and 7% tested proficient in math on state standardized tests in the 2017-18 school year analyzed in the study.
That’s compared to more than half of students in financially stable homes statewide that tested proficient in those subjects.
Formerly homeless students tested only slightly higher than currently homeless children.
Those lower scores reflect the disruption in education caused by school transfers, truancy, and disciplinary problems often linked with homelessness, Erb-Downward said.
One in five homeless children in Alpena County transfer schools midyear, according to the study — and every transfer sets a student back four to six months educationally, Erb-Downward said.
Alpena County dropout rates for homeless kids are significantly lower than those of the state, with about 12% dropping out locally compared to 21% statewide.
About 60% of homeless students in Alpena County graduated from high school on time, compared to 93% of Michigan students who were not economically disadvantaged and had never been homeless.
In Alpena County, one in 10 homeless students included in the study were expelled or suspended, compared to 4% of students in financially stable homes.
Check out the interactive graphic below. Story continues below the graphic.
‘THEY’RE EVEN HIGHER’
Alpena’s higher-than-the-state numbers could mean regional homelessness advocates do a better job identifying homeless children, Erb-Downward said.
“Or, it could be that homelessness is just more of a significant problem in Alpena,” she added.
The researcher suspects a mix of both.
“Even though our numbers are high, I think they’re even higher, to be honest with you,” said Vicki Denstaedt, the Alpena McKinney Vento Consortium homeless liaison who connects students in Alpena, Alcona, Atlanta, and Hillman schools to homeless services.
Grades suffer when homeless parents have to focus on earning an income and can’t spend time reading to their children or offering the in-home, early-learning help educators credit with helping students succeed in school, she said.
More than a quarter of homeless Alpena Public Schools students are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian, almost double the statewide share.
Three quarters of Alpena County homeless children and nine of 10 elsewhere in Northeast Michigan live doubled up, sleeping on couches or in spare bedrooms of family or friends, according to the report.
Some argue that such living arrangements don’t qualify as homelessness, Erb-Downward acknowledged.
“Whatever you want to call it,” she said, “we need to figure out how to deal with it.”
Locally, kids receiving McKinney Vento services renamed the program FIT, for Families in Transition.
“We’re not homeless,” they tell Denstaedt. “We’re in transition.”
Reducing child homelessness starts with community members noticing the needs of the people around them, she said.
Seemingly small gestures, such as offering rides or picking up food from pop-up food pantries for a neighbor without a car, can strengthen a family in jeopardy of losing their home.
Communities that want to raise educationally strong children need to look beyond reducing homelessness and help kids reengage in school once their home life stabilizes, Erb-Downward said.
The report she co-authored provides data organized by political boundaries so concerned residents can share numbers with their state representatives, urging legislative changes to help children.
Even more, she said, the data should be used by local organizations as a tool to identify ― and fix ― problems.
“We need state policies to support kids,” Erb-Downward said, “but we also need to think about how we implement changes and supports at the local level so that we’re really supporting families in the way they need.”