American education is facing a significant but little talked about issue -- the growing number of students dealing with the challenges of homelessness. These challenges are shaping the futures of over four million boys and girls in ways that most of us cannot imagine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in a report written this year. As defined by the McKinney Vento Act, homeless children includes individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, and includes children and youths who:
- Share the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason.
- Live in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations.
- Live in an emergency or transitional shelters or are abandoned in hospitals.
- Have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for nor ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings; or live in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings.
- Who are migratory children living in one of the above circumstances.
Homelessness among this crucial age group has immediate and long-term effects, In fact, children facing homeless are:
- nine times more likely to repeat a grade
- three times more likely to be placed in special education
- and four times more likely to drop out of school entirely.
In 2022, my position at Round Rock ISD, TX offered a telling lens into this situation, revealing many of the multifaceted obstacles these students encounter.
The Dilemma of the "Unseen Scholars"
"Unseen scholars" is more than just a phrase. It encapsulates the experiences of students who, despite confronting homelessness, tend to blend into the background. The reasons they opt for such invisibility vary from personal fears to societal pressures. A prevailing concern is the unintended spotlight on their families, which tends to draw unwanted interventions from welfare agencies.
Many children dealing with homelessness struggle with feelings of alienation and unease. While some of us feel like we have the solution to help these children, it’s immensely important to come from a place of empathy as well as education. Simply acknowledging their struggles isn’t enough to make a difference.
In the end, we need to acknowledge their desire for privacy, even in the form of unnoticeable essentials. No student should feel like they have a bullseye on their back due to the clothes they wear or the supplies they carry. Preserving their sense of self-worth is as essential as addressing their need for basic necessities. While this can be a difficult line to walk, together, we can all learn more about how to truly support these children, without causing them more attention and therefore, disarray.
Learning Solutions for Comprehensive Support
The education world is constantly changing, shedding light on the increasing need to provide both academic and emotional supports for students, particularly those facing these unique challenges. The escalating numbers of students confronting homelessness amplifies the urgency. Their daily needs often surpass what's typically offered in our traditional school settings, resulting in significant gaps in their educational journey and emotional health.
One support that we have implemented is an individual tutoring program. It’s a solution that meets students where they are and provides different modalities for different learner needs. While at a McKinney Vento event, I was introduced to a tutoring program, which we implemented. In my experience, the platform meets the varied needs of students. Whether they need 24/7accessibility or offering support in multiple languages, it fosters an environment where every learner is included. Additionally, its text-centric methodology provides the privacy students desire, enabling them to participate and ask questions without being noticed by other students.
But the real testament to our tutoring program lies in its tangible outcomes. From aiding Spanish-speaking newcomers in grasping complex subjects to offering a refuge for students seeking answers outside typical classroom hours, the difference it has made is notable. A number of students have transitioned from being at the brink of academic setbacks to showcasing commendable performances.
Engaging Leadership for Equitable Learning Environments
The Leadership in our district has a responsibility that extends beyond academic directives, especially when faced with challenges as profound as supporting the needs of homeless learners. That responsibility is not simply to understand, but to actively address these needs immediately. Their role, in many ways, will define the school experience of these students, determining whether they survive or thrive within the school system.
Other initiatives, such as district level resource centers and campus level care closets, are representative of the types of tangible steps school leadership can adopt. These are not simply storage spaces but are symbolic of a school's commitment to stand by its students, offering them essential provisions, from clothing to hygiene supplies, all designed to restore a sense of normalcy to their lives. Support mechanisms designed to address both our learners’ academic and social well-being underscore the importance of inclusivity and holistic care in our education system.
As we emerge from the shadows of the pandemic, educators are presented with unprecedented challenges. The aftermath has rewritten the foundations of traditional teaching, urging a shift towards combined in-person and online approaches. However, amidst these challenges, it's inspiring to see the resilience and adaptability of our students, particularly those navigating the complexities of homelessness. Their move towards hybrid learning isn't just a circumstantial reaction; it mirrors their determination and adaptability in unreliable circumstances. By tapping into this natural resilience and drawing from past experiences, educators and school leaders are uniquely positioned to craft educational environments that truly nurture and empower each student.
A startling number of students grapple daily with the challenges of homelessness, far more than I had guessed previously. Their journey, beset with hurdles, is one of incredible tenacity and resilience. For our part, this journey has been partially eased by resources we can provide, including a (quiet) full service tutoring platform and a care closet where students can anonymously select food and personal health and hygiene items.
We found that when we can provide customized learning experiences, accessed anonymously and tailored to meet the needs of students experiencing homelessness, they are much more likely to succeed, bridging the gap between adversity and opportunity.
The success stories of these students serve as a powerful call to action. They urge educators to recognize, adapt, and carve paths that not only offer support but actively elevate every student's potential. Our collective aim should be to ensure that each student, regardless of his background, challenges or lack of a zip code, is well-equipped to embrace the opportunities of tomorrow with confidence and competence.
About the author
Desiree Viramontes currently serves on the Round Rock Housing Authority board and was the District Homeless & Foster Care Liaison at Round Rock ISD. She earned both her M.Ed. and undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and is passionate about participating in the noblest of professions as an advocate that provides unbiased opportunities for every student, teacher, and parent through community involvement, equitable legislation, and quality education.