As Washington state students get back to their studies, many of the young people and their teachers face a disturbing reality created by forces outside the school doors. The numbers of students who are homeless has risen significantly in recent years.
The rate of student homelessness in Washington rose by 29.7 percent between the 2006-07 and 2009-10 academic years, according to the most recent available data published last December by the Office of Public Instruction (OSPI). In 2006-07, the state’s school districts had identified 16,853 students as homeless; three years later, the number had risen to 21,826.
The increase is unsurprising in light of this week's announcement by the U.S. Census Bureau: Childhood poverty across America has risen from 20.7 percent in 2009 to 22.0 percent in 2010. By the end of 2010, according to the agency’s report, 15.1 percent of the US population, or almost one in six Americans, lived below the poverty line.
If the percentages of Washington's homeless students were the same in every school, or if percentages were highest in the wealthiest districts and lowest in the poorest ones, new demands on district programs and school resources might be more evenly met across the state.
However, an analysis of OSPI data released last by Columbia Legal Services last week, Student Homelessness Across Washington State, shows how unevenly the new numbers were distributed across Washington's 39 counties. The percentage of homeless children within public school student populations has risen highest in rural counties, with the result that the demands on teachers and services are disproportionately higher where the raw numbers of homeless students are lower.
For example, the total number of 3,620 homeless students identified in King County is 1.4 percent of the county's entire population of students. Mapped onto daily classroom life, the statistics mean that the teacher in a King County district of a class with 35 students, which would be considered fairly large, stands a 50-50 chance of having one pupil in that class saddled with the kinds of problems typically caused by homelessness — absenteeism, chronic health issues, anxiety, friendlessness, lack of a place to play or do their homework, etc.
But in Asotin County, in the southeast corner of Washington, a far smaller number of homeless students — 293 — is 8.79 percent of the total student population. The teacher of a fairly typical class of 25 pupils is likely to have an average of two who are often absent, ill, anxious, socially isolated, unable to concentrate, or behind in their work, just because they have no home. The state disburses federal money aimed at helping homeless students to districts needing it most, but in too many schools the need far outstrips resources.
Erin Shea McCann, an attorney at Columbia Legal, said that analyzing the totals of homeless students in Washington’s 295 districts on a county-by-county basis is an attempt "to make this not just the school district's problem.” Colleague Casey Trupin said, “This is a county issue. If you create affordable housing where there is student homelessness,” the burden on the school district is lightened.
In fact, according to an email from McCann, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty has shown that affordable housing costs less than some of the services that school districts are required by law to provide homeless children in order to give them some of the stability and reassurance that research has shown reduces the damage on their lives. For example, housing homeless families with school-age children is cheaper than fulfilling the legal requirement of busing the children daily to their original schools in cases where they have been forced to move from their home neighborhoods.
What are the long-term consequences of homelessness among America's children? An easily measured repercussion is that too many fail to graduate from high school. This failure, added to the increased likelihood that these children will engage in risky behaviors and will develop health problems including psychological difficulties persisting into adulthood, affects not only their lives but also the well-being of society.
Researchers at Columbia University have calculated the social costs of denying children an excellent education. According to a research summary in America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness: Washington State, based on data compiled by the U.S. Department of Education for 2006-07, high school graduates typically earn about $200,000 more in a lifetime than do individuals who drop out.
The impact of lower incomes earned by those who fail to graduate is public as well as private, says the report, because it means lower tax contributions. After subtracting the likely costs of raising graduation rates from the increased taxes paid back to society by high school graduates, many of whom go on to college and earn far higher lifetime incomes than fellow graduates who do not, the net lifetime gain in contributions to society would be about $127,000 per student.
Such a calculus has dire implications for Washington state, which has a graduation rate of less than 25 percent among homeless high school students, says the report. If the rate persists, the 4,367 of these students counted by OSPI in 2006-07 “will lose $700 million in lifetime earnings, and society will lose $416 million in potential contributions from them.” In addition, “Other studies have shown that they will have shorter and less healthy lives, and are very likely to pass on to their own children the diminished opportunities of poverty.”
Mere self-interest, then, should tell us to work hard on helping every citizen grow up educated and healthy so that each will become a benefit to society instead of a burden on it. And for those of us who take seriously the ideal of basic fairness — that our public schools should be level playing fields where students can compete on the basis of their abilities, not of their family’s fortunes or misfortunes — it should feel tragic that increasing numbers of kids are showing up for the competition with lead weights tied around their ankles.
Doreen Cato, executive director of First Place, a combined elementary school and social service agency in Seattle that serves children of families in crisis, said that her waiting list is growing. Large numbers of parents are unemployed or facing other recession-related catastrophes.
Still, Cato thinks the rest of us can make a difference in the lives of students who need help: "Volunteer at agencies like the 'Y' (YMCA, YWCA) Treehouse, Mockingbird Society, Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Be a classroom aide for a teacher who has three or four kids in crisis in their class, or kids two and three grades behind their peers. It's great when teachers can get someone to lead small reading groups. There are lots of different ways to help," she said, including making financial donations.
As a presenter at last November's conference on student homelessness in Kitsap County dryly remarked, “We need more people who are bothered by the fact that some of our kids have so little.”