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

Carla is a high school senior from Newport Harbor High School who plans to attend college.

If you knew Carla two years ago, this would be surprising. During her sophomore year, Carla was struggling in school. Her teacher, who believed her failing grades were related to housing insecurity, referred her to a nonprofit organization working on campus in partnership with the school to serve students experiencing homelessness.

The organization provided tutoring and worked with her teachers to help Carla recover her grades, and by her junior year, she was passing all of her classes. Simultaneously, Carla discovered a love for singing and earned a role in her school’s holiday production. Like many youth experiencing homelessness, she didn’t have a nice outfit for the performance but was able to get one through this partnership.

Stories like Carla’s remind us that it’s time to show up for our kids in real time — where they are — especially for our K-12 students experiencing homelessness.

In its 2020 report, State of Crisis: Dismantling Student Homelessness in California, the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools reported nearly 270,000 K-12 students in California experienced homelessness in the 2018-19 school year, enough to fill Dodger Stadium five times. These students represent approximately 4% of all K-12 students in the state, and they are disproportionately students of color. And these are pre-pandemic numbers. These are students just like Carla — who just need a little help to realize their potential.

Unfortunately, schools were not designed to meet the needs of students experiencing housing insecurity, trauma or generational poverty. Far too often, school districts have resources, but families don’t have the means to tap into those resources. Yet, schools are where students are — making the school campus an ideal place to bring in community-based organizations that can help meet students’ needs. To achieve this, Newport Harbor High School decided to bring the trauma-informed care and intensive case management services offered by the nonprofit Project Hope Alliance directly onto its campus.

This has become a powerful partnership that can be replicated. The organization used private philanthropy dollars to fund the pilot program on the Newport Harbor High campus. Later, district and city dollars allowed the program to expand districtwide. Parents, faith and community groups and partners supported the program with clothing, food, technology, school supplies and other basic items. Referrals of students were provided by the district’s homeless student liaison and campus counselors.

The partnership is embedded into the campus culture. Case managers, therapists and support staff are visible and approachable on campus. They join all staff meetings and are viewed as part of the team. Teachers and staff may note signs of housing insecurity: a student’s spotty attendance, poor academic performance, arriving on campus early to wait in line for food, or showering in the gym locker room. When they see the signs, school staff now have a resource for immediate referral and assistance in real time. Case managers attend meetings related to suspensions, chronic absenteeism and behavioral issues (for which homeless students are disproportionately penalized) as they occur, providing an advocate for the student and solution partner for the school.

When schools were closed during the pandemic, technology devices, school supplies and food were brought to the students in motels, shelters and doubled-up houses. A community and learning center provided quiet spaces for learning and studying. There were virtual sessions for tutoring and therapy, and a book club was organized.

Typically, district homeless student liaisons under the federal McKinney-Vento Act are responsible for multiple campuses and can have caseloads of hundreds if not thousands of students, limiting their capacity to triage work and address basic needs. In our program, there is a 30:1 student-case manager ratio on campus, making transformative and trauma-informed work possible.

This partnership resulted in a graduation rate 20% above the national average for students experiencing homelessness and a projected community savings of $14.3 million by 2030.

Today, the pilot has expanded onto all Newport Mesa Unified School District campuses.

This work is time, labor and cost-intensive, but transformational. We have been able to witness students flourish in the classroom and beyond. Carla and her peers experiencing homelessness are counting on us. With the American Rescue Plan dedicating $800 million to support students experiencing homelessness, we have the resources available. We just need the will.


Jennifer Friend is CEO of Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit organization serving children experiencing homelessness. Sean Boulton is principal of Newport Harbor High School in Costa Mesa. 

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