New effort aims to count all California homeless students | Quick Guide

January 5, 2022

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

Schools are tasked with figuring out just how many students are homeless, but it’s not easy— even in a state where nearly 270,000 homeless students are estimated to be enrolled in grades K-12.

A state bill, AB 27, designed to help school districts count them by standardizing specific identification methods has begun to roll out across the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed it into law in September.

The new law expands on an existing federal law, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which requires school districts to count any homeless students attending their schools. But without specified methods written into the federal law for school districts to implement, it is largely believed that homeless students are undercounted each year.

Students who experience housing insecurity are more likely to be chronically absent from school, less likely to graduate from high school, and are most likely to be children of color, according to a 2020 report by UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools.

That same report found that the number of homeless students in the state is large enough to fill the 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium, one of the largest Major League Baseball stadiums in the country, five times.

What is the federal law designed to do? 

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was passed in 1987 and was most recently reauthorized in 2015.

It requires every public school to count the number of students who are living on the street, in shelters, in motels, in cars, doubled up with other families or moving between friends’ and relatives’ homes. It also mandates that every school district, county office of education and charter school hire a local liaison who must ensure that homeless youth are identified and have education services coordinated for them to increase their chances of succeeding academically.

But a 2019 audit conducted by the office of recently retired State Auditor Elaine Howle found that available data suggest California’s districts, county offices, and charter schools “are not doing enough to identify youth who are experiencing homelessness, even though identification is the critical first step to providing these youth with the necessary services and support.”

How does AB 27 expand on that federal law?

The new law requires school districts, county offices of education and charter schools to administer an annual housing questionnaire and report the results every year to the California Department of Education. While many schools have distributed housing questionnaires in the past, their use was not required statewide prior to AB 27.

The state law also establishes three technical assistance centers statewide that will create and facilitate training materials to help outline the needs of homeless youth and their families, plus assist school districts, county offices of education and charter schools in ensuring that all homeless students are identified.

AB 27 also comes with a one-time funding grant of $1.5 million for the three technical assistance centers.

The bill was co-authored by Assembly members Luz Rivas, D-Arleta; David Chiu, D-San Francisco; and Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton.

What can families expect in the housing questionnaire? 

The questionnaire shared by the state Department of Education is short.

Families can expect to be asked basic identification questions, such as the name of the student, name of the school they attend and contact information.

They are asked one main question: “Presently, are you and/or your family living in any of the following situations?” The family can then choose from five options:

The questionnaire also includes information on the rights of students who are homeless, many of which are outlined in the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Families can expect the housing information to be kept confidential and shared only with pertinent school staff.

Every school worker and educator can access the state’s housing questionnaire template, along with its instructions, on the state Department of Education website. The template was most recently updated in November, a few weeks after AB 27 was signed into law.

Why was AB 27 signed into law if the California Department of Education already collects data on homeless students?

The California Department of Education has, for several years now, compiled some data on homeless students. That data includes the number of homeless students at each public school, school district and across grade levels.

But those numbers have been determined to undercount how many students are in need of housing every year. Identifying them is often the toughest hurdle, and what AB 27 aims to do is ensure that all homeless students are counted by school personnel by providing a standard method that all schools can use to learn how many of their students are living with housing insecurity.

It’s difficult to get an accurate count of homeless students for several reasons, including that the information is self-reported and that some families are reluctant to share their housing status with school personnel. Plus, the federal definition of homelessness, which is part of AB 27, considers a family homeless if they are staying with relatives or in temporary housing due to economic hardship, loss of housing or a similar reason. Those families may not consider themselves homeless.

Any data stemming from AB 27 will be added to the same dataset within DataQuest, the state department’s data dashboard, where current data on homeless students can be found.

Over several years, the department has also compiled various other resources to aid schools in supporting homeless students.

The state department is currently developing a document to answer frequently asked questions regarding the new state law, which will be posted on the department website in the new year, according to a spokesperson.

When can we expect to see the new data on homeless youth?

The first complete set of data since AB 27 was signed will be available on the state Education Department website during the summer of 2022, after the current school year ends.

For the current school year, the data submission window for school districts, county offices of education and charter schools that have identified homeless students attending their schools is between May 9 and July 29. That data is entered into the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, which is also known as CALPADS.

The data system will then pull the submitted data into a report that must be certified by the office or district that entered it. The certification deadline for next school year is July 29.

Any amendments to the data must then be made between July 30 and Aug. 26.

But school districts, county offices of education or charter schools can also submit data to the state at any time during the school year prior to the submission window, and they are generally advised to update data as they become aware of changes to the housing situation of any student. If they decide to do that, they must still certify and amend by the above deadlines.

What is the bill’s intended impact for students and families?

The newly signed law aims to establish a universal support system that can then lead to more individualized support for homeless or housing-insecure students, according to Joseph Bishop, executive director of UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, which compiled the 2020 UCLA report that estimated the number of homeless students in the state.

But while the bill aims to accurately count the number of homeless students statewide, it does not provide funding to help those students with housing or other support.

“Homeless liaisons are already thinking about this. But we need more people at the table across agencies given the scope of the challenges. It has to happen in Sacramento, in counties, in cities,” Bishop said, adding that school districts, county offices of education and charter schools cannot be expected to do it alone and could perhaps partner with community-based organizations. 

Even with the annual questionnaire, the one-time funding and the new technical centers that come with AB 27, challenges remain when asking families to self-identify their housing situation.

“More broadly, is there strong trust between schools and families – ‘If I share this information, which is highly personal, will there be a stigma? Can I trust you?'” said Bishop, citing questions that often arise when families are asked to share personal information.

The hope is that AB 27 will help strengthen that trust between schools and families.

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