Homeless students get new attention in school accountability plans

July 19, 2015

School districts must spell out how they will help the state’s 310,000 homeless students and make goals for their progress under a new law that may be the first of its kind nationwide.

Gov. Jerry Brown approved the change to California’s accountability system last month when he signed the catch-all “trailer bill” that enacts the state budget details into law, but also includes issues not addressed in other bills.

Homeless students now must be included specifically in school districts’ Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, to show how their needs are being met. Districts then must track test scores and other measures of progress, which the state will also monitor.

One national advocate for homeless student issues said California is the first state she knows of where homeless students are designated in accountability systems.

“California is definitely leading the states,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

The California Homeless Youth Project specifically called for this change in its September 2014 report, California’s Homeless Students: A Growing Population. The study found that California has the largest homeless student population in the country, about 4 percent of the state’s students, and twice the rate as the national average.

“It could be potentially really huge, life changing, for these students,” said Shahera Hyatt, the project’s director.

Homeless students, as defined by the federal government, are those who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The definition includes students living in motels or hotels, doubling up with other families or living in shelters.

The numbers are increasing, according to federal statistics: In 2013-14, there were 50,344 more California homeless students than in 2012-13, when there were 259,656 such students. Nationwide, about 1.36 million homeless students were enrolled in schools.

Test scores for homeless students already are being collected under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act. But there are no specific requirements for school districts to do anything with those scores, so districts likely vary widely on how they address homeless students’ achievement, said Leanne Wheeler, the state’s homeless coordinator at the California Department of Education.

But the new state law will require all schools with at least 15 homeless students to have their test scores reported out as a “subgroup.” Districts must outline specific activities and programs to help those homeless students and set goals, such as what percentage of students are proficient on state tests, in their LCAPs.

Already, districts and schools must include information for other “subgroups,” including ethnic groups, socioeconomically disadvantaged children, English learners, disabled students and foster youth.

Homeless students already were being helped under the socioeconomically disadvantaged category. But experts note that homeless students face specific obstacles that not all low-income students do, including unstable homes, lack of food and transportation problems.

“I think it’s shining a light on a population that is sometimes overlooked,” Wheeler said.

While the law already went into effect, most districts likely won’t outline homeless student goals until the 2016-17 school year because most 2015-16 school year plans are already approved. However, districts are allowed to update their plans whenever they choose.

Homeless students’ scores would be included in the Academic Performance Index, or API, a composite number of scores and other measures, under the law. But the API is suspended for now as the state moves to a new testing and accountability system.

Toni Atkins, speaker of the California State Assembly, decided to push for the change in law, said Rick Simpson, the speaker’s deputy chief of staff. The change was quietly made with little discussion.

“We thought this was a population that has unique challenges,” Simpson said. “There ought to be some self-conscious thought to what might make those kids successful.”

Some districts already have some mention of homeless students in their LCAPs. The youth project report looked at the 10 districts with the most homeless students and found that only one, Long Beach Unified, specifically mentioned homeless students, Hyatt said.

In a search of a database compiled by Education Trust-West of districts’ LCAPs, the word “homeless” showed up in 166 plans for 2014-15. Some grouped those goals with those for foster youth.

The Los Angeles Unified School District put some new money for homeless students in the 2015-16 plan before the new law was approved. In 2013, the state’s largest district enrolled 15,972 homeless students, according to kidsdata.org.

With $1.8 million from the district’s general fund, Los Angeles Unified plans to increase its homeless education staff: The number of counselors will increase from seven to 19 and the number of aides will increase from four to 10.

Aides will assist with jobs such as distributing backpacks, transportation cards and food during the holidays. Counselors will be able to train staff in schools to help identify and help homeless students. For the first time, counselors will be assigned to reach out to shelters, as well.

“It’s definitely helpful and we appreciate it,” said Erika Torres, director of student health and human services for Los Angeles Unified. “We’re really excited to have this opportunity to have targeted support for homeless students and families.”

In addition to this new law, two other bills would address homeless students’ needs:

 

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