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Q&A with the Texas Homeless Education Office

Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Date Posted: 12/14/2016

ATPE talked to the Texas Homeless Education Office about the challenges of educating homeless students in Texas public schools and what teachers can do to help.

Approximately how many students across Texas are affected by homelessness?

In the 2014-15 school year, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) certified the count of 113,294 students in Texas public schools as homeless. This is the most recent school year for which we have verified data. Texas traditionally has either the second or third most identified students, behind New York and California. The number of identified homeless students has increased over the years, due to financial instability, natural disasters, medical and other hardships, and better methods of identification by school districts.

What are the signs of homelessness that school staff should look for?

Many students are identified at the time of their enrollment though a housing survey called a student residency questionnaire. The questionnaire is given to all students, new and returning, every school year. Many students who were in the district the previous year may have lost housing over the summer break, while some students who were homeless the previous year might have found permanent housing over the summer and are no longer in a homeless situation. However, many students may become homeless during the school year. These students are more difficult to identify. They may not have completed a housing survey. They may be embarrassed or afraid to let school staff know about their situation. They may not realize they meet the US Department of Education definition of homeless and thus do not self-identify. School staff, including classroom teachers, should be trained to spot the signs that a student might be in a homeless situation. Some of these signs include:

  • Tired, sleeping in class, lack of energy
  • Poor hygiene
  • Wearing the same clothes day after day
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Doesn’t turn in homework assignments
  • Doesn’t complete special projects
  • Is frequently tardy or absent
  • Comes to class “unprepared”
  • Change in behavior
  • Is angry, hostile, anxious
  • Is secretive, afraid to share information
  • Is withdrawn and isolated
  • Moves around a lot
  • Grades fall off, gaps in learning
  • Avoids friends, teachers, established relationships

What challenges do they face, and how does homelessness affect their education?

Homeless students face the challenges of poverty and mobility. Losing one’s home is traumatic and creates many grief and loss issues for developing children. The lack of a stable living situation adversely affects all aspects of their educational lives, from the formation of trusting friendships with peers and school staff to missing school credits and lacking successful educational experiences. Homelessness both causes and exacerbates existing mental health and physical health issues, erodes self-esteem, and interferes with healthy child development—often due to living in unsafe and communal situations. Children in homeless situations lose foundational school experiences, safe and healthy relationships, needed school documents, follow-through on educational service plans, access to needed services such as tutoring and special education, and the ability to participate in extracurricular and enrichment activities.

What are the top three things Texas teachers and other school staff need to know about educating homeless students?

  1. Homeless students are all of our students. They do not “belong” to one district or community. They belong to all districts and all communities. They are our future neighbors and citizens. We all need to be invested in their care and success.
  2. Homelessness creates barriers to school success. School districts must review and revise policies and procedures with an eye to potential barriers for students in poverty and homelessness. Homeless students need school supports and assistance in order to be successful and reach their full potential. Homeless students can succeed with the right kind and amount of interventions and services. The answer to struggling homeless students is not to deny these students enrollment and assistance; the answer is to welcome and embrace them, and provide them with the supports needed to ensure their success. Schools should bring enthusiasm to the creation of resources and opportunities within the district, and build collaborative partnerships with community service providers.
  3. Schools can be instrumental in helping students feel safe and secure at school, in finding a predictable school experience when their “home” life is chaotic, and in building self-esteem—by helping students understand that homelessness is a situation that is moved into and out of—it’s not an identity.

What does the Texas Homeless Education Office do? How do you work with Texas educators and schools?

The Texas Homeless Education Office (THEO) works with the US Department of Education (USDE), Region 10 Education Service Center, and the TEA in statewide activities that assist Texas school districts and education service centers to serve students and their families who are in homeless situations. Specifically, THEO:

  • Works to ensure Texas public schools are in compliance with the requirements of the Federal McKinney-Vento Act as reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, and numerous supportive state statutes designed to support the education of students in homeless situations.
  • Provides training in person and through electronic means to school districts and regional service centers, community partners and providers, and at numerous professional and industry conferences and workshops so that everyone understands the requirements for implementing McKinney-Vento, removing educational barriers, and providing educational supports for students in homeless situations.
  • Provides technical assistance to school districts and educational service centers, and advocacy for parents, guardians, and students in accessing educational services and ensuring their educational rights under federal and state laws.
  • Creates guidance and educational materials, an informational website, media outreach through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and provides research and information to advocates, legislators, and education administrators.
  • Operates a 1-800 “hotline” that responds to questions from parents, students, the community, and school districts.
  • Provides consultation and guidance regarding McKinney-Vento school disputes, and district complaint processes.
  • Works with TEA and Region 10 in implementing statewide services for training, technical assistance, and service provision in Texas.
  • Implements the TEXSHEP grant program, a three-year competitive grant awarding funds to supplement school district services to students in homeless situations. Please visit theotx.org to access awareness materials, the laws, TEXSHEP grant information and recipients, the list of homeless liaisons throughout the state, the training calendar, upcoming events, and new outreach efforts.

What resources do you recommend for educators?

Theotx.orgNCHE.ed.gov, and NAEHCY.org have numerous materials identifying and explaining the laws, and answering questions regarding the implementation of these laws. Bring sensitivity and awareness to the issues students in homeless situations face by seeking out YouTube video resources such as “Worn Out Welcome Mat,” about homeless students living in doubled-up and substandard housing situations in Texas. Every school district must appoint a homeless liaison, and the liaison must receive training on identifying, enrolling, and assisting students to attend and succeed in school. There are many training opportunities available at the above websites. Another important resource is the yearly statewide Ending Homelessness Conference that provides numerous sessions regarding the laws and their implementation, and provides opportunities to connect with community service providers and local homeless coalitions. Connect with neighboring districts’ homeless liaisons. More seasoned homeless liaisons are a great resource for the person newly assigned the homeless liaison role.

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