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How Schools Can Support Homeless Teens


Consider this. More than 1.3 million public school students were homeless at some point in the 2016-2017 school year. Research shows homeless students are less likely to graduate, but there is a lot that educators can do to help. Illinois Newsroom's Lee Gaines has the story of one recent grad whose experience shows the difference a school can make.

LEE GAINES, BYLINE: Melissa Esparza says her parents often made her feel bad about herself.

MELISSA ESPARZA: Told me I was never good enough, that I was, like, too fat and, like, that they wish they never had me as a child.

GAINES: Two years ago, she fled her home in northern Illinois after a bad argument with her parents. She was 16 at the time, and she gets choked up talking about it.

ESPARZA: So I called my boyfriend, and I told him to come pick me up. Like, I just couldn't be there anymore.

GAINES: Then Esparza did something many homeless teens don't do. She went to school and told her guidance counselor what happened. Her school classified her as a homeless unaccompanied youth. That's a student who lacks a stable residence and who doesn't live with a parent or guardian. That meant she got money for transportation, and she had the right to stay at the same school no matter where she lives. Esparza says it also helped to have understanding teachers especially when her grades were suffering.

ESPARZA: They did help me through it, and my grades did end up coming back up.

GAINES: Esparza's experience is a best-case scenario of a school identifying a homeless student and working to support them. But not all students would feel comfortable telling a grown-up at school about their homelessness. Across the country, homeless teenagers are falling through the cracks.

BETH HORWITZ: Imagine what would've happened if she hadn't asked for help.

GAINES: That's Beth Horwitz. She's with Chapin Hall, a research and policy center at the University of Chicago. Their research estimates that about 700,000 kids age 13 to 17 experience unaccompanied homelessness in any given year. Federal law requires that those students have equal access to schools, which often means more help and resources. But Horwitz says schools aren't always motivated to find homeless kids.

HORWITZ: Because of the sort of mismatch between their requirement to serve students experiencing homelessness with the amount of funding available to do that work.

GAINES: So what should schools be doing? Horwitz points to a program in Australia where student surveys helped identify those experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness. Then the program connected those students with support services. The result - lower dropout rates. Horwitz says her organization is planning to pilot that program in schools in the U.S.

HORWITZ: Every day that we don't intervene with young people is another day where their development is interrupted and where they're unable to transition to stable adulthood.

GAINES: Deb Dempsey wants educators to focus on it, too. She's a homelessness liaison for Kane County, Ill., where Esparza went to school. Dempsey is the person schools reach out to when they identify a homeless student. She invited Esparza to share her story with educators at a recent professional development day in Elgin.

DEB DEMPSEY: We're trying to bring it to school personnel's attention that, you know, there are reason kids aren't living with their families. And they still have the right to go to school, and they should have an adult working with them.

GAINES: Esparza says she also wants educators to get better at spotting homeless kids. Here's her advice to teachers.

ESPARZA: If you see a change of pattern in, like, they're showing up, like, less, their grades are slipping or they're just not talking as much in school anymore - that something's probably wrong.

GAINES: Esparza graduated in 2018. Now she's working and taking classes to become an early childhood educator. She says she wouldn't be where she is today without the help she received from her school. But Dempsey says until schools get better at identifying homeless students, success stories like Esparza's may continue to be an exception, not the rule. For NPR News, I'm Lee Gaines in Urbana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lee Gaines