Julie Leopo/EdSource
All public schools are required to identify and help homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Homeless students attending charter schools in Los Angeles County have significantly lower attendance and graduation rates than their peers at traditional public schools, according to new research from UCLA.

Homeless students in Los Angeles County charter schools had a graduation rate of 45% in 2018-19, more than 35 percentage points lower than the rate of homeless students at the county’s traditional public high schools, and 30 percentage points lower than the state average, according to “Unseen and Unsupported Students in Charter Schools,” published by the Black Male Institute at the university’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The rates are low, according to researchers, because charter schools often don’t provide the support they’re required to provide — such as transportation, groceries or school supplies — to homeless students and their families, as many traditional public schools do. As a result, homeless students may struggle more with school and have difficulty graduating, researchers said.

There are more than 4,000 homeless students in Los Angeles County attending charter schools, about 7% of the total county K-12 enrollment identified as homeless students.

“The outcomes are really low. It’s shocking,” said Earl Edwards, an author of the study and a UCLA doctoral candidate studying urban education. “It’s an important issue because if we’re not doing a good job providing services to these students, then we leave them to experience more adverse impacts later in life.”

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, all public schools are required to identify homeless students and provide them services such as transportation and school supplies. “Homeless” can be a fluid term, but under the McKinney-Vento Act is defined as living in shelters, cars, motels, outside or “doubled up” with other families.

Without a high school diploma, youth who’ve experienced homelessness are far more likely to become homeless as adults, according to researchers at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

The UCLA research also shows that about 40% of homeless students in Los Angeles County’s charter schools were chronically absent in 2018-19, missing more than 18 school days. At traditional public schools in the county, the rate was 30%.

In addition, the data suggests that many charter schools in Los Angeles County either undercount or didn’t enroll homeless students at a rate that reflected the homeless youth population in their communities. Charter schools identified about 2% of their overall enrollment as homeless, compared to over 5% at traditional public schools. A state audit in 2019 found that roughly 10% of a school’s low-income student population is likely homeless, and most schools statewide — both charter schools and traditional public schools — undercount those students.

Due to California’s high housing costs, the number of homeless students has been steadily climbing for the past decade. In 2018-19, schools identified 207,677 students in California as homeless. The number dropped in 2019-20, but experts believe that the pandemic and economic upheaval has led to more, not fewer, homeless students but schools are having a harder time identifying them due to campus closures.

The California Charter Schools Association said that identifying homeless students is a challenge for all schools, not just charter schools. Homeless families don’t always feel comfortable sharing their status with school officials, and students might be embarrassed to admit they need help, said Ricardo Soto, the association’s chief advocacy officer and general counsel. If homeless students are undercounted, it’s not because charter school staff are intentionally ignoring them, he said.

“Charter schools are committed to serving all students who come through their doors,” Soto said. “It’s not about not wanting to serve these students. There’s room for improvement, but it’s a complex issue. It’s a challenge for all schools.”

One reason for the undercounting and poor outcomes may be because charter schools, which tend to be small, often assign the role of homeless liaison — required in all districts — to a staff member who might have numerous other responsibilities. Without a dedicated staff member to identify and help homeless students and their families, it’s easy for schools to overlook that population, Edwards said. Typically, homeless liaisons at traditional public schools work in the district office or local county office of education.

In 2019, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Schoolhouse Connection, a homeless student advocacy group, published a guide for charter schools to improve the way they identify and serve homeless students. In general, the main challenges are getting accurate counts of homeless students and finding ways to reach out to families in the community who might be experiencing homelessness, said Nina Rees, president of the alliance.

“It’s a question of making sure we’re equipping our schools with what they need to comply with the law,” Rees said. “It’s about reaching out, being attuned to the community, making sure families and students feel welcome regardless of their housing situation.”

The UCLA brief recommends that charter schools audit their student enrollment twice a year and assign a full-time liaison to coordinate a broader, school-wide approach to helping homeless students and their families. Teachers, administrators, clerks and other adults on campus should be trained to identify and assist homeless students.

One charter school in Los Angeles County, Birmingham Community Charter High School in the San Fernando Valley, was singled out in the 2019 state audit for failing to identify and serve its homeless students. But since then, the school has made homelessness a priority. The school has trained every staff member to recognize signs students might be experiencing an unstable housing situation, and regularly updates its website with resources for homeless families and their rights outlined in the McKinney-Vento Act.

“(Especially) during the pandemic, I have worked hard to maintain a connection with our homeless families and to procure resources for them,” said Birmingham’s homeless liaison, Veronica Perez. “Through phone calls and emails, I am able to keep the line of communication open with families.”

Another Los Angeles charter school, Crete Academy, was founded in 2017 specifically to serve homeless and other students living in poverty. Approximately 30% of its enrollment of 203 students is homeless, with some traveling from shelters across the city.

The school works with food banks, clinics, churches, shelters and other local nonprofits to provide assistance to families. It also has an emergency fund to pay for motel stays, hygiene kits and groceries for families when needed.

One mother arrived at the school last year with an infant and two school-age daughters, and said they’d been on the street for three days and her daughters hadn’t been to school in two weeks.

“She came to us and said, ‘I heard you can help,’” said Brett Mitchell, the school’s principal and co-founder. “We helped get her into a hotel, and then a long-term shelter. We got her counseling. She got a job. One of her daughters was even identified as gifted. Eight months later, she and her kids were on a completely different track. They just needed a little stability.”

Serving these families often means that Mitchell and his staff work long weeks, looking for creative ways to fundraise, meet families’ unique needs, connect with local agencies and find new families who need help.

“Your results are going to reflect your level of commitment,” he said. “We’re relentless about it. It’s our No. 1 priority. It’s a constant push.”

Five Keys, a charter school network in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, also prioritizes homeless students, as well as those in the juvenile justice system or who have dropped out of school. Founded in 2003, Five Keys works with more than 75 nonprofit agencies to provide shelter, clothing, food, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and other services.

Unlike Crete Academy, where most of the homeless students live with their families, Five Keys’ homeless students tend to be older and on their own, often living on the street.

“The needs are multiple and many,” said Five Keys’ president, Steve Good. “Some of these kids have virtually nothing. It breaks your heart.”

Once the students get stable housing and basic health care, they can finally focus on school, he said. Some are years behind academically, but teachers work with students individually to help them catch up and eventually earn a high school diploma — a key milestone in overcoming homelessness.

“We create a space where students feel safe, where adults care about them and will stay with them for years and years and years, however long it takes,” he said. “Even if they disappear, we go looking for them … We feel that education is the thread that will ultimately get them off the street.”

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