EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Barbara Duffield, National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth

In the wake of the nation’s prolonged economic struggles, schools from Maine to California are reporting significant increases in homeless students. EWA spoke with Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, about the critical role schools play in addressing the crisis and ways for education reporters to tackle the story.

1. Are there actually more homeless students, or are people just more aware of the problem?

It’s absolutely true that homelessness is increasing, and it’s also true that we’re more aware and better able to identify those students. The exact numbers are difficult to quantify, because of the difficulties of homelessness itself. There’s a huge stigma – kids are ashamed, and parents are fearful.

In the 2006-07 academic year, public schools enrolled 679,724 homeless children and youth. In 2009-10, the number was 939,903, an increase of 38 percent.

2. Other than the dramatic size of the increase, has anything surprised you about the latest numbers?

We are seeing increases in reported numbers of homeless students in urban areas, which isn’t unexpected. But we’re also hearing districts that are reporting for the first time that they have homeless students who need help.

We know there are many preschool age children who are homeless. However, not every district has a preschool program, or if they do it’s very limited. That makes it difficult to make contact with those families and count those children. We also know there are high school students who have left abusive family situations – what we categorize as unaccompanied homeless youth – who are doing everything they can to avoid detection because they don’t want to go into foster care. They go to extreme lengths to blend in.

3. Is there an aspect to this story that you feel is going underreported or deserves more of the spotlight?

Sometimes I think the focus has been on the financial burden for the school district – we have x number of kids, and only y number of dollars to serve them.  Lack of funding is an extremely important issue, but I’d like to see more stories that are child- and youth-focused, what it means to be a homeless kid. Sometimes that big picture gets lost in the numbers.

In the stream of stories on homelessness, I also don’t think people are paying enough attention to schools as a safety net. The schools are doing what other organizations can’t – or won’t – do. We talk about “Race To The Top,” but we have kids who don’t even have shoes.

4. It’s understandably difficult to keep track of homeless students. Are some states or districts doing a better job than others?

One of the problems we face is that there are currently no standard reporting requirements on high school graduation or dropout rates for homeless students for every state. In a few years, more complete reporting will be required of all school districts – that’s something the Department of Education has thankfully being moving toward on its own.

A few states, including Virginia and Colorado, are able to disaggregate high school graduation and dropout rates by homeless status. We know from that data that homelessness has an impact on student achievement above and beyond poverty.

Obviously there’s more work to be done. The city of Worcester, Mass. reported a larger population of homeless students than Boston Public Schools’ numbers. Does Worcester really have more homeless kids, or is Boston not doing enough to identify all of its students who qualify for services? I think it’s probably the latter.

5. Where should education reporters start when tackling this story?

Every district is required is required to have a coordinator for homeless students – the school district homeless liaison. For many districts, because of budget cuts, it’s difficult to have that be a full-time position. But that should be a reporter’s first call.

Here’s what I would ask the district: How many people are working on this? How do you train your staff? Is there training for school secretaries and counselors? How do you get the word out to families and community groups that there’s help available?

I would also reach out to some of the community providers, such as shelters, and ask for help finding parents and youth who are willing to share their experiences. I think those stories where we’re able to follow a family or a student, in and out of school, can be really powerful.

This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.