California Schools Failing to Support Homeless Students, State Audit Finds

Nov 9, 2019

As California faces an unprecedented homelessness crisis, schools across the state are failing to connect their homeless students with the vital services they’re entitled to, a state audit found.

Students experiencing homelessness often face major hurdles to academic success and are far more likely than their peers to be chronically absent or to drop out altogether. While services like tutoring, transportation and free school meals are known to help, many kids don’t receive that support because their schools often aren’t even aware that they’re homeless, according to the audit, released Thursday.

State lawmakers requested the audit earlier this year after questioning the results of data from the California Department of Education (CDE) that show a quarter of California’s school districts reported zero homeless students during the 2017-18 school year, even though it’s widely understood that homelessness doesn’t spare any corner of the state.

Under federal law, schools must identify homeless students and provide them with support services. Those students are also guaranteed the right to be immediately enrolled in school even if they lack proper documentation, and to remain at whatever school they’ve been attending, regardless of whether they move.

California State Auditor Elaine Howle analyzed five districts across California, as well as one charter high school, and found all but two were undercounting their student homeless population.

The analysis of the five districts — Greenfield Union School District, Gridley Unified School District, Norwalk‑La Mirada Unified School District, San Bernardino City Unified School District and Vallejo City Unified School District — and Birmingham Community Charter High School, showed that homeless youth were overall more academically successful in the schools that did a better job of identifying and supporting them.

Between 5% and 10% of all low-income students in California experience homelessness in a given year, according to estimates by education experts cited in the audit. Meanwhile, most of the districts scrutinized in the report identified 3% or fewer of their low-income students as homeless.

“We determined that the [local districts] we reviewed could do more to identify and support these youth, and that [CDE] has provided inadequate oversight of the state’s homeless education program,” Howle wrote in a public letter.

School staff, the audit found, aren’t properly trained or are not following best practices. Not one of the five districts, or the charter school, had given staff the necessary training to understand the requirements of state or federal law or accurately identify homeless youth. Only one district publicly posted information about programs available to homeless students, as required by law, while two didn’t distribute annual housing questionnaires.

The differences in districts’ approaches and the resources they devote to homeless students is also striking, the audit found. Both Norwalk-La Mirada and San Bernardino City districts work closely with outside organizations to support homeless students, according to the report, while the remainder of the districts analyzed do not.

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And while Norwalk-La Mirada has one full-time and one part-time staffer dedicated to homeless education programs, and San Bernardino has four full-time dedicated staff, the one homeless liaison in the Vallejo City district is also in charge of the district’s discipline policy while simultaneously running its absentee program and overseeing its alternative schools.

The results of the differing investments are equally stark: Despite similar enrollment and student demographics across the districts, Norwalk-La Mirada’s homeless youth far outperformed those in Vallejo City, with significantly lower rates of suspension and chronic absenteeism during the 2017–18 school year.

Similarly, the audit found that almost 80% of reported homeless seniors in the San Bernardino City district graduated in 2018. For Norwalk‑La Mirada, that rate was 85%. But for Vallejo City, it was a mere 40%.

The report outlines several steps lawmakers could take to strengthen local programs and department oversight. At the local level, it says, legislators could require districts to put out housing questionnaires annually to students and their families, as well as mandate annual training for staff who work with homeless youth.

“This training would help to ensure that the staff are aware of important information, such as the definition of a youth experiencing homelessness and the key indicators to look for, that would help them identify the youth needing services,” the report states.

To ensure better oversight at the state level, the audit also recommends that lawmakers require CDE to come up with a plan to more effectively monitor districts, especially those at greatest risk of undercounting homeless students.

Tote bags with messages for homeless families made by students on display at the Salinas City Elementary School District Family Resource Center. (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

Vallejo City Unified’s Superintendent Adam Clark says he agrees with the findings and recommendations, but notes that implementing those changes is a complicated proposition.

“It’s not like districts are saying ‘It’s just our job to educate.’ We’re way past that,” he said. “We understand that the whole child and whole family needs to be addressed. But to look at 28 kids in a class, sometimes those needs are really truly beyond what we have the resources to provide.”

Low-income families, he added, often turn to school officials for help finding housing or job training.

With enrollment dropping in his district, Clark says, budgetary pressures have forced punishing cuts to services and staff, affecting all students in the district. While he says his schools are working to better prepare staff to support homeless students, he also worries that any new legislative requirements resulting from the audit would put further strain on schools already grappling with shortages of teachers and substitutes.

“We’re just spread so thin with trying to provide the basics that it’s really hard to follow all the requirements when we’re not getting the resources and support to do it,” he said. “Hopefully this report leads to greater support so we can do the things we know are right to do.”

The audit places ultimate blame on CDE for failing to provide oversight and leadership. While the department is required to ensure districts comply with the law, the report found that of the 2,300 local educational agencies in California, CDE has only been monitoring about 20 each year — less than 1%.

San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, one of the lawmakers who called for the audit, expressed outrage over the failures identified in the report.

“It is unacceptable that we are monitoring less than 1% of the programs in the state. The department needs to monitor many more programs,” he said. “They haven’t been supporting schools, materials have been out of date, which can be updated, training modules haven’t been released that could be released. There are very concrete steps we can take.”

For its part, CDE has blamed these deficiencies on a lack of resources, but the audit points out that the department had yet to conduct an analysis to see what kind of resources might be needed to effectively oversee districts.

CDE did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in its feedback to the auditor, the department agreed with most of the recommendations and said its staff is working toward implementing them. It also noted that an additional consultant had been added to its homeless education program. CDE

Chiu says he plans to look for legislative solutions to address the auditor’s recommendations.

“Given that California’s in the most intense homelessness crisis that we’ve ever faced, we’ve got to do everything we can to address the needs created by the crisis,” he said. “Particularly when it comes to our most vulnerable kids.”

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