Back-To-School Question: Is School Important or Not?

School Districts Routinely Fail Homeless Students

Diane Nilan
5 min readAug 9, 2023

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Happy students working on a computer. Photo Diane Nilan

If school is so important, why do schools nationwide fail to do what is required to enroll and educate countless* students experiencing homelessness?

While school supply distributions and backpack drives aim to equip our nation’s impoverished students to head back to school, little attention is directed at millions of invisible students despite strong legal rights to help them attend and succeed in school (the federal McKinney-Vento Act).

Provided by McKinney-Vento.org

Illinois Schools Busted!

An audacious report by Naperville (IL) Central High School student-journalists recently called out 80% of Illinois districts for ignoring homeless students, neglect that greatly hampers tens of thousands of snubbed students to attend, much less succeed in school. Illinois districts missed more than just a few students, according to the Central Times’ analysis.

While Illinois identified about 37,000 students as homeless in the 2020–2021 school year, a Central Times analysis of state and federal enrollment data estimates there are up to 55,000 more students who haven’t been identified.

Anecdotal information I’ve gathered nationwide in my years of work with family/youth homelessness sadly reflects similar failure in too many other states.

Reading with intensity. Photo Diane Nilan

Schools Routinely Fail Students

Back-to-school is challenging time for homeless families and youth on their own to meet rigorous demands of schools. The supply list represents an impossible task. Yes, many communities hold back-to-school fairs where goods are distributed, but many don’t know they’d qualify for help, stressing over the required items, often skimping on other essentials to afford the stuff they should be able to get for free, far beyond the typical distribution.

If they only knew. Schools could help them learn that their homeless situation qualifies them for extra help. Publicizing information that explains who qualifies as homeless (and eliminating the stigma) would help families and youth on their own recognize their situation as homeless.

Why do schools do so poorly complying with state and federal homeless education laws? The Central Times analysis suggests:

The reasons for the routine under-identification of youth experiencing homelessness involve a population so hidden it’s often forgotten, laws so unknown few know how to access help, and non-existent enforcement that allows those responsible for implementing the law to cut corners.

Districts are obligated to “proactively identify students who may qualify and not wait for them to identify themselves,” (Illinois State Board of Education official). Despite that proclamation, the astute high school journalists point out that “our analysis suggests schools across Illinois aren’t doing a very good job — and it’s students who’re paying the price.

Girl who lives in a tent. Photo Diane Nilan

Few Understand the Perils of Homelessness

How bad is homelessness for families? Educators unfamiliar with this growing phenomenon, don’t begin to grasp the turmoil. Lisa Mentesana, who runs an Oregon agency assisting families experiencing homelessness, recently explained:

Families experiencing homelessness sometimes disintegrate, she explains, adding, ‘You see a higher rate of addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, and then you see youth escaping that or leaving it or themselves, [or] their families asking them to leave. You see a lot of heartache…’

The penalty of schools ignorance/ignoring of the federal McKinney-Vento Act causes students and their families to suffer — a financial hit, shame and bullying, failure to thrive, absenteeism, and more. Not only do schools make things unnecessarily harder for those already struggling with poverty and homelessness, we’ve given up on the possibility of kids being successful. We don’t even seem interested in them surviving.

Paltry Efforts Mask States’ Failure

Oklahoma realized that districts were failing to grapple with student homelessness — based on skyrocketing absenteeism — so they passed a law.

To help keep track of homeless students, a new state law aims to improve how districts identify and count students. Liaisons said by lessening absences and making it to graduation, homeless students have a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.

Will a law help?

This news story reports OK schools have identified 12,000 students experiencing homelessness, a number that could be ten times greater according to University of Oklahoma Professor David McLeod who challenged

Would Oklahoma’s citizens — the brave, bold, resourceful, and upright of our state — be content that we have 12,000 homeless children? What if I threw on top of that, we know where to find them? We know who they are, and we know where the majority of them and their siblings go to school?

Duffield, VA elementary school. Photo Diane Nilan

Schools: No Excuse for Failure

Sure, resources tend to be scarce for schools. But Covid opened a floodgate of federal resources that can be used to improve public education, including $800 million American Rescue Plan funds focused on homeless students. This money can greatly ramp up efforts to identify and assist students experiencing homelessness.

Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, outlines what districts are doing and what’s at stake in this article, and implores:

There is an urgency to identifying and supporting students who experience homelessness to make the most of the one year remaining of the federal funding. Including homelessness in school, district and state efforts to strengthen academic recovery, improve attendance and bolster student mental health is essential to move the needle on these core challenges.

The bottom line:

Schools need to be held accountable for their efforts (or lack thereof) to identify and educate students experiencing homelessness. No “the dog ate my homework” excuses. Anything less is hypocritical.

  • While school districts report about 1.1 million homeless students in 2022–23, those familiar with this issue believe that number is a drastic undercount. My estimate and justification can be found here.
the Charlie Book https://www.amazon.com/Charlie-Book-Ways-Help-Homeless-ebook/dp/B0B5S7GV9G/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=the+charlie+book%3A+60+ways+to+help+homeless+kids&qid=1657035015&s=digital-text&sr=1-1
Find out what you can do to help homeless kids! This e-book is available on Kindle, or bulk copies of print books can be ordered through HEAR US

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Diane Nilan

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 18 yrs. on US backroads. hearus.us