Numerous School Districts in Oregon May Have Undercounted the Number of Homeless Students

Homeless Students: Madysun Wilson had already given up on graduating when the dean at her high school showed up during her shift at Papa Murphy’s in Coos Bay, Oregon.

She was officially homeless, staying at a friend’s house after fleeing her parental home at 15. Wilson’s family had been getting phone calls from dean Casey McCord for weeks warning them that Wilson was considering leaving Marshfield High School.

The next day, Wilson consented to return to her school, where McCord marched her to the back of the building to introduce her to Melinda Torres. Torres is the staff entrusted with communicating with and helping homeless kids in the Coos Bay School District.

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Numerous School Districts in Oregon May Have Undercounted the Number of Homeless Students

Torres pleaded with Wilson to stay in school, saying that Marshfield would pay for her GED if she decided not to graduate (GED). The two of them might be able to assist her in acquiring necessities like food and clothing. It worked: Wilson, now 17, has her high school equivalency diploma thanks to her hard work and dedication, and she plans to continue her education at Southwestern Oregon Community College to earn an associate’s degree. She dreams of working with homeless youth in the future.

β€œFor the bulk of my life, I didn’t think I was going to graduate high school,” Wilson said. But after getting some advice, she told herself, “I wanted to (do) better. Coos Bay is a place I need to escape.

Wilson was fortunate in that the school personnel at Marshfield monitored her housing condition and encouraged her to earn her GED. Many schools across Oregon are considerably less successful in detecting homeless students and connecting them with food, shelter, and academic support, an InvestigateWest analysis found.

Every school district in the country is obligated by federal law to give homeless pupils full participation in academic and extracurricular programs. However, federal education data reveals that no homeless kids were recognized in at least 16 Oregon school districts with more than 20 students enrolled in 2019–20.

While it may seem encouraging that there are no homeless children at this school, experts suggest that this is more likely due to a lack of resources than to a lack of poverty or homelessness in the area.

An official from a national organization working to better the lives of homeless adolescents stated, “if you’re a tiny, rural district with 11 pupils, okay, definitely.” This official was Barbara Duffield, the director of SchoolHouse Connection. In contrast, “but otherwise, you’re not going to have a district that has no student experiencing homelessness, especially year after year.”

Furthermore, at least 21% of Oregon districts are likely under-identifying the number of homeless students enrolled in their schools, according to data analysis by InvestigateWest and the Center for Public Integrity.

It is not just Oregon that has a problem with undercounting. According to research conducted by Public Integrity, there may be as many as 300,000 homeless kids who go uncounted each year in the United States. The homeless student population disproportionately consisted of people of color, including Blacks, Latinos, Native Alaskans, and American Indians.

It’s not a simple question of paperwork if homeless pupils aren’t recorded. Especially in Oregon, where the law mandates that schools unenroll students after 10 consecutive days of unexcused absences, this could mean the difference between a student receiving free school meals and going hungry, participating in extracurricular activities and missing out, or getting help with transportation to school and being dropped.

Numerous School Districts in Oregon May Have Undercounted the Number of Homeless Kids
Numerous School Districts in Oregon May Have Undercounted the Number of Homeless Kids

Wilson thinks her life’s trajectory might have been very different if her school hadn’t stepped in.

When asked if she ever saw herself doing nothing but working at Papa Murphy’s, she answered, “Yes.” “Bless Melinda’s heart, she finally got me wired in.”

Data Reveals Disparities

Women and children constituted a growing proportion of the unhoused population in the United States throughout the late 1980s.

As a result, in 1986, Congress passed the Homeless Persons’ Survival Act, which is now known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. An array of short-term and long-term responses were provided. One of these was a mandate that schools provide equal educational opportunities for homeless and non-homeless kids.

Districts are obligated by law to annually disclose the total number of pupils enrolled in their schools so that they can begin the process of identifying and enrolling those students. The responsibility for ensuring that school districts are in conformity with the law and providing them with chances for professional development falls on the shoulders of state departments of education.

According to some studies, at least 5% of students who receive free or reduced-price lunches would have to be considered homeless for an estimate to be considered accurate or cautious. That has been adopted as a statewide standard by the Florida Department of Education to prevent any educational institutions from failing to properly account for any of their pupils.

Information from the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years reveals that hundreds of Oregon school districts failed to meet that standard in the years leading up to the outbreak.

In 2018-2019, less than 5% of students receiving free or reduced-price meals in 37 Oregon school districts were considered homeless. The next year, this figure increased to 42 districts, with the largest being Salem-Keizer with 41,200 students and the smallest being Wallowa with 181.

In fact, the number of districts that may have underreported their homeless kids is likely larger because Public Integrity’s dataset did not include charter schools, which in Oregon would imply roughly 30 districts were left out of the analysis. Twenty-four other school districts were left out of the study because they did not provide sufficient information about their free and reduced lunch populations.

When asked how they determine whether or not districts are appropriately reporting their homeless children, officials from the Oregon Department of Education replied they do not employ a baseline. The department’s chief strategic adviser for homeless and vulnerable adolescents, Chris James, characterized the state’s approach as cooperative rather than punitive.

The Oregon Department of Education did not provide any examples of the state challenging a district’s data or the district’s report that it had no homeless students.

β€œIn my experience, it is not to be the heavy hand of enforcement, as much as helping them,” James said of the state’s approach to the issue.

The federal education agency responsible for supervising the states provided a similar description. It is unclear from the federal agency’s refusal to provide Public Integrity’s request for information as to what percentage of states have school districts that do not comply with the law, which prompts heightened surveillance.

When asked what the agency does, a spokeswoman would only say, “monitoring and compliance efforts, which can include investigating alleged non-compliance.”

However, proponents argued that state and federal education department accountability can be crucial to preventing pupils from being undercounted.

According to SchoolHouse Connection’s executive director, Duffield, “if a district does not think there are consequences for not identifying studentsβ€”for not transferring them, not enrolling themβ€”they will just keep doing it.”

About a dozen school districts reported zero homeless students in both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. The majority of those schools serve extremely rural areas or small towns, largely in Eastern Oregon. Zero of them have more than a thousand pupils.

Although 50.8% of the 594 students enrolled in Grant County’s School District 3 in 2019-2020 were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, no homeless students were reported in either year.

Catrina Gabbard, the district’s homeless liaison since 2016, expressed frustration over this lack of information. Each school system is required to appoint at least one employee to serve as a homeless liaison in accordance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This person is in charge of assisting homeless students in gaining access to necessary services, compiling and reporting relevant data, and educating their peers on the law in order to facilitate identification.

In larger school systems, it is possible that multiple people will serve as homeless liaisons. However, Gabbard also works as an administrative assistant at a primary school, as is usual in many smaller districts.

Most of Gabbard’s trouble with student identification, she said, came from prejudice. A student’s homelessness was revealed to her only after they had moved out of the district and returned. She revealed that none of the affected students had ever informed the school administration or even their immediate families.

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I’m at a loss for words. I agree with Gabbard that it is a daunting challenge.

According to the available data, the rate of student homelessness in rural areas is comparable to that of urban areas. Not only that, but the educational sector employs a broader definition of homelessness than that of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“I would definitely be very suspicious of a number of school districts in a county saying zero students are experiencing homelessness,” said Marisa Zapata, director of the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative at Portland State University.

In an email, Oregon Department of Education director of federal systems Liz Ross said that when deciding whether or not to conduct outreach, the department “reviews data for outliers, trends and patterns, size of the district, and extenuating circumstances (such as natural disasters).”

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