Student Homelessness and Special Education

How technology is closing the opportunity gap for homeless and high poverty special education students

Homelessness is a major problem, impacting the lives of children and young adults throughout the country. Some 1.4 million students – 2.7% of the nation’s total student population – are without stable homes. Of that population, many require special education support. A 2015 report prepared by the Child Trends Data Bank, found that “Children without homes are more than twice as likely… to repeat a school grade, be expelled… or drop out”.  According to the same report, 75% of homeless youths live with families other than their own; 6% percent are housed in temporary accommodation, and an astonishing 42,000 live on the streets, and other “Places not meant for human habitation”. These appalling figures can be attributed to a range of factors, including domestic violence, and a lack of affordable housing. For “unaccompanied” students living on the streets, mental illness, and substance abuse can also play significant roles.

Homelessness and Special Education

Homeless and high poverty youth experience a variety of behavioral, emotional and cognitive issues placing them in urgent need of special education services. In 2016, some 6250 homeless students were reported as receiving special education services in the state of Washington, alone. Homeless students have been found to require special education services at two to three times the rate of housed students, with many demonstrating behaviors associated with ADHD, and other disorders, caused (at least in part), by their living arrangements.

Reports released by the Better Homes Fund, and Institute of Children, Poverty & Homelessness highlighted a significant problem: even though homeless and high poverty youths are amongst those in greatest need of support, they are less likely to receive special education services than other students. In 2001, the McKinney-Vento Act was signed into law as part of No Child Left Behind, and was designed to ensure that homeless youth have access to a free and “appropriate” education. Despite the ideal, adequate special education support has proved elusive, due to the many difficulties associated with evaluating learners. These issues can include loss of school records, as well as the requirement that schools exclude “environmental” factors as a cause behind the struggles faced by special education students.

Technology as a Solution

Implementing the McKinney-Vento Act, and providing adequate support can be challenging for many school districts; particularly those with under-resourced, high poverty schools. Technology, however, can be an affordable, and effective solution. Jennings County Public Schools in Montgomery County, Virginia sought to close the achievement gap, and “bridge the digital divide”, by increasing the access of homeless and high poverty students to technology. In a recent article for Learning and the Brain, Jennings’ superintendent Tiffany Anderson stressed her belief that limited exposure to technology adversely impacts academic performance: “high poverty students … are asked to make a high jump without the same running start [as] students who are not in high poverty homes. In underperforming high poverty schools, the use of technology is limited and in some cases, non-existent. In a standards based setting, there are many [technology-based] resources that should be used to master standards”. While technology isn’t the only solution, it can transform the lives of homeless students, who are often in danger of “falling through the cracks”, allowing educators to create a customized learning experience; districts like Jennings County Public Schools point a way forward in addressing a pressing problem with long term consequences.

Photo credit: IACAC

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