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Opinion: 1.3 million students are homeless. Here’s how we can help them

There are more than 1.3 million students in our country’s public school system with no safe place to call home. Equal to the number of all K-12 students in Virginia or the entire population of Dallas, Texas, these young people pursue their education while contending with the anxiety of homelessness and grinding poverty.

Imagine, if you can, trying to memorize your multiplication tables or the Bill of Rights while standing in line outside of a shelter. Imagine wearing the same clothes you wore yesterday and hoping your friends won’t notice—or if they do, that they won’t ask why. Imagine not knowing if you will sleep in the same place tonight as you did last night, or if you will have to search for a new place to rest. Now tell me, what does the 10th Amendment say again?

Our homeless students hold as much promise, and are as much a part of this country’s future, as every other student. And while that’s easy to say, the reality is we haven’t taken the steps to ensure homeless students get the support they need to succeed in school. The results of our inaction are staggering. Students who experience homelessness are 87 percent more likely than their stably-housed peers to drop out of school—the highest dropout rates in the country. In turn, young people without a high school diploma or GED are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness, perpetuating the cycle of poverty and despair.

A young person’s housing situation should have no bearing on their access to opportunity. When students experiencing homelessness don’t get a fair shot at graduation or a pathway to success we deny them the American Dream. Nearly three out of four homeless students reported being motivated to complete their educations and take the next steps in their careers, notwithstanding their traumatic circumstances. If they are hopeful about their futures, we must be too.

So what’s to be done? In an otherwise chaotic time of homelessness, schools can be pillars of stability. Students spend a significant portion of their day in school and, as a result, schools can help identify homeless students, provide a safe and consistent place to study, and connect them to caring adults and community resources. Encouragingly, under the federal McKinney-Vento law, all districts and states are required to have liaisons to provide such supports.

These ideas aren’t just academic, they’re working in school districts around the country. In the Tukwila School District in Washington State, nearly 12 percent of students have been identified as homeless. Tukwila embraced the challenge by training educators and school staff to identify early warning signs of homelessness, like low attendance and falling grades, and to provide transportation, counseling, tutoring, housing and other services they need to keep students on track.

While the graduation rate for homeless students in Washington State was 52 percent in 2015, it was 73 percent for homeless students in Tukwila, exceeding the average graduation rate for all students in the district. In Deer Park Independent Schools in Texas, the graduation rates for homeless students approaches 100 percent. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the rate of progress in boosting graduation rates for homeless students has exceeded the rate of gains for all students. If we can provide an equitable education for homeless students in Tukwila, Deer Park and Virginia, we can do it everywhere in the country.

In every school district in America there are students experiencing homelessness, and they deserve an opportunity to succeed. That’s why America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness and SchoolHouse Connection are spearheading the Education Leads Home campaign. The campaign aims to achieve a 90 percent high school graduation rate for all homeless students by 2030, a 60 percent post-secondary attainment rate by 2034, and equal rate of participation in quality early childhood programs for homeless children as their housed peers by 2026. Education Leads Home will spread best practices from places like Tukwila, Deer Park and Virginia across the country, raise awareness of the importance of focusing on this vulnerable population of students, and bring together a powerful coalition of organizations and leaders to support homeless students.

We owe it to our kids and our country to rise to this challenge and ensure the homeless students of today do not become the homeless adults of tomorrow.

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