A light in the dark
NCHE brings homeless students out of the shadows
Just 20 minutes north of UNCG’s main campus is the National Center for Homeless Education, a technical assistance center that has been a part of the university for nearly 20 years.
The center, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is driven by data.
And there’s one number that stands out above the rest. It’s the number of children and youth across the country identified as homeless … 1.3 million.
Identifying a need
Homelessness in the United States takes on different forms. Families might be staying in a shelter, or spending nights in a car. Or maybe they’re couch hopping, relying on the kindness of friends and family and bouncing from home to home at a moment’s notice.
In schools, it’s not easy to identify young people in these situations at a glance. Homeless students often go unnoticed and, as a result, lack the educational resources they desperately need.
That’s where the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) steps in. Housed in UNCG’s SERVE Center – whose mission is to work with educators and policymakers to improve education – NCHE is the technical assistance and information center for the federal Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program.
ECHY oversees the implementation of the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act, which ensures free, appropriate, public educational opportunities for homeless children and youth.
The first step in providing support? Identifying who needs it. Before NCHE was formed, virtually no data and no standards related to identification and support existed. The result was countless children with untapped potential falling further and further behind in school.
“When we stepped in, there was no central depository of information on how to serve homeless children and youth,” says Diana Bowman, who served as the center’s director from 2000 to 2015. “There wasn’t anything that guided individuals on how to follow the law and best serve this population. And there was nowhere to go when they were running into challenges.”
Bridging the gap
Fast forward to 2016, and NCHE is publishing hundreds of different briefs, handbooks, and toolkits, holding more than 40 webinars each year, and fielding approximately 200 emails and calls each month.
Bowman retired as the center’s director in 2015, yet continues at NCHE part time. It’s not easy to just walk away from this work.
Now there’s a new, equally passionate leader at the helm: George Hancock. Hancock started his career in education as a teacher in Wake County, North Carolina, and most recently worked for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Hancock’s desire to work with homeless children and youth isn’t just a professional interest — it’s deeply personal.
“During my first job as a teacher, we did a lot of work with housing projects in inner-city Raleigh,” Hancock says. “I was struck by how involved and engaged those parents wanted to be with their children’s education, yet how difficult it was for them given the many challenges they were facing.”
Homelessness is defined by federal law as lacking fixed, regular, and adequate housing. This definition includes students living in homes without working plumbing or heating, as well as those staying with a different friend or relative each week. NCHE also works with unaccompanied homeless youth — homeless children and teens who are living on their own without a parent.
The McKinney-Vento Act grants specific rights to homeless children and youth, such as immediate enrollment in school, transportation, free meals, clothing, school supplies, and tutorial services.
However, accessing these resources can be difficult, and many families are unaware that they are available.
“Homeless children and youth and their families don’t have the time and resources to try to navigate systems across cities or states,” Hancock says. “We work with coordinators and liaisons to provide a coordinated point where these families have access to the resources they need.”
According to the McKinney-Vento Act, all states must have a state coordinator for homeless education, and all school districts and charter schools are required to appoint a local liaison. In addition to providing webinars and publications, NCHE offers on-site trainings for coordinators and liaisons, and often hosts workshops at national conferences. The goal is to ensure that states, districts, and schools are complying with the law and best serving the homeless children and youth in their respective areas.
Serving our state
For Lisa Phillips, the state coordinator for the North Carolina Homeless Education Program, these support services from NCHE have been critical. Phillips, who is also based at UNCG’s SERVE Center, is one of 50 state coordinators for homeless education across the nation who rely on the support of NCHE.
“Since 2006, we’ve seen a 56 percent increase in identification of homeless children and youth in North Carolina,” Phillips says. “We’re not letting them slip through the cracks. We’re doing a much better job of identifying these students and making sure they have the tools to be successful in school.”
North Carolina has 115 school districts and approximately 150 charter schools. To date, approximately 28,000 children and youth in North Carolina have been identified as homeless. Phillips spends the majority of her time traveling to these districts and schools to provide technical assistance and ensure that they are complying with the federal law. When it comes to providing support to her local liaisons, Phillips relies on numbers.
“There are many layers of data that we utilize,” Phillips says. “These data help us have a better understanding of the unique challenges that exist in specific regions, districts, and schools.”
For example, Phillips recently conducted a state-wide survey of charter schools to gauge their knowledge of homeless education issues. The results of this survey will help her better understand the challenges that homeless children and youth face in a charter school setting.
And it’s not just K-12 students that Phillips and her counterparts support. Homelessness on college campuses continues to be an issue across the state and the country — approximately 58,000 college students nationally reported that they experienced homelessness during the 2014-15 academic year.
“Navigating the system after graduating from high school can be very difficult for many of our youth facing homelessness,” Phillips says. “These students really look to our liaisons and other support networks to help guide them.”
While NCHE’s technical assistance has resulted in significant progress in the identification of homeless children and youth, there’s still work to be done. One critical gap that NCHE has identified is the lack of homeless education training in schools of education across the country.
“We’re seeing that future teachers are not prepared to navigate issues related to homeless children and youth, especially when it comes to identifying and securing resources,” Hancock says.
Hancock notes that a large portion of homeless children and youth are dealing with some type of trauma, and there are certain behaviors — such as withdrawal or emotional outbursts — that often result.
“If we can help educators make this connection, they’ll start to think differently about how they manage the classroom,” he says. “For example, they may have a different approach to discipline and zero-tolerance policies.”
Another critical issue is students who are chronically absent — those who miss more than 10 percent of the school year. Beginning in 2017, the U.S. Department of Education will require data collection on these students. NCHE plans to provide technical assistance to states working to comply with this new requirement. The center wants to compile national data on the prevalence of chronic absenteeism among homeless students and develop and disseminate information on how to combat it.
Hancock is also developing stronger research partnerships with departments across UNCG. While being connected to a university has always been uniquely valuable to NCHE, the center is beginning to identify areas where they can work more closely with faculty, staff, and students.
Pursuing their passion
Bowman, Hancock, and Phillips all agree: research and evaluation are critical to the center’s mission. But it’s the passion behind the percentages that define their work.
“It’s never just a job,” Bowman says. “People are so invested in the issue and are so passionate. This field attracts the most amazing people who work tirelessly on behalf of homeless children and youth.”
“When I think about the children I’ve worked with, so many faces come to mind,” Phillips says. “I want what’s best for our children in North Carolina, which is why I’m so dedicated to this job.”
For Hancock, the stories that stick with him are the ones that demonstrate the complexity of the issue.
He recalls a middle school student who had been chronically absent and was likely to repeat seventh grade due to his truancy.
As Hancock began working with the family, he realized that the young boy was currently living with his father, who struggled with mental health issues, and his grandmother, a recent stroke victim. The student’s diet was poor, and he suffered from undiagnosed asthma.
“The answers to situations like this do not come easy,” he says. “They are layered and require a system of care that relies on multiple components.”
Yet despite the complexities of the situation, one thing is certain: all children have extraordinary potential.
“Children are children. They want to learn and they want to be engaged,” Hancock says. “If you can find a way to light that spark, it doesn’t matter where they come from.”