Homeless Students Are Missing School. Does Having a Separate School for Them Help or Hurt?

For homeless students, chronic absenteeism is dismayingly high.

The number of students who regularly miss school has risen since the pandemic, but for homeless students, it’s been especially bad. Even though federal law requires states to provide public education to homeless students, delivering on this has proven troublesome. And getting homeless students to show up to school has been an elusive goal for many districts.

Leaders of a school in San Diego — an area with one of the largest homeless populations in the country — think they have an answer. Monarch School, a public-private K-12 school, is an arrangement between the San Diego County Office of Education and a local nonprofit. It has around 300 students, all of them experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless.

Only having students experiencing homelessness creates a sense of community, school leaders argue, removing the stigma of not having a reliable place to call home. It also enables the school to focus on providing tailored social-emotional learning.

So why do critics say the very idea of a school for the homeless is “problematic?”

One of a Kind

The McKinney-Vento Act, the federal law overseeing homeless education, bans homeless-only schools as a form of “segregation.”

Monarch School benefits from an exception, making it the only publicly funded separate school for homeless students. That status is in part because powerful lawmakers including Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving senator who died in late September, have supported the school.

Monarch School relies on a community approach to education and social services, emphasizing on-site family programs and resources. For example: The school has on-campus showers, food pantries, licensed clinicians and social programs. It encourages whole families to make use of free housing and health assistance, in part through its parent resource center. When parents, students and families are experiencing trauma, it can be really helpful for them all to show up to one building, says Marisol Alvarado, vice president of programs at Monarch School.

If you ask school leaders, that sets it apart.

Most students are referred to Monarch School through social workers from other institutions, and the school says that’s because of the social programs it offers.

“The emphasis of our work is to provide a safe and socially nurturing place for unhoused students to achieve academic success,” says Afira DeVries, CEO of Monarch School. That means building a standalone community because, she says, it’s hard for students who don’t have homes to be themselves in the mainstream American school system. “It’s a bright, beautiful, colorful, joyful place,” DeVries adds.

On a phone call with EdSurge, Monarch School’s CEO said that social-emotional learning was the school’s priority. The students who attend the school go home to shelters, motels or even cars, DeVries says. While the academic part of the work is important, she adds, the students need interventions that will stabilize them so that they learn in the first place. If Monarch School can build emotional resilience in the students, it can set them up to build an academic career, DeVries says.

She also pointed to a research study conducted by the school — with The Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education at the University of San Diego — that reported greater feelings of belonging and self-esteem among students. But that study did not track academic outcomes or chronic absence rates.

So does the model work? Are more schools for students experiencing homelessness a good idea?

Monarch School argues that it provides a quality education. The school’s rolling average graduation rate for its senior classes, DeVries estimates, is 93 percent. Last year, she adds, the entire senior class graduated. But students there may not be following the typical path. By senior year, the dream is for students to have recovered from the trauma of homelessness and to have transitioned out, according to the school’s leadership. The goal is to stabilize students enough to return to traditional schools, DeVries says.

Meanwhile, critics allege that the school’s academic outcomes are actually “terrible” compared to homeless students who study at traditional public schools. A 2020 federal report found that Monarch School’s students had poor reading and math skills when compared to public schools in the San Diego area, especially for elementary students.

But the objection is more sweeping.

Some people are convinced that homeless-only schools are a bad idea. That includes Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit focused on homeless education advocacy. Duffield has been a longtime advocate, with a history of working on federal policy for homeless education.

Duffield argues that schools for homeless students disrupt education by removing students from the general school system. When the U.S. Congress prohibited separate schools, she says, it recognized that homeless students do better academically when they are integrated into the mainstream school environment than when they are separated from their peers, in part because a separate school simply cannot offer the same educational opportunities as an integrated school, and also because separate schools cause homeless children to change schools based on their housing situation.

In general, the idea of a school that separates homeless students from the usual public schools rankles because they can’t provide as many support services, like access to free meals, and they lack social clubs, student associations and other extracurricular activities, according to notes about homeless-only schools sent to EdSurge from Duffield’s organization.

While schools for homeless students may be well-intentioned, they end up promoting low expectations and perpetuating pity and bias rather than opportunity, Duffield says.

Showing Up

What about getting students to show up for class — can a school for homeless students distinguish itself there?

The school says yes. It self-reports a daily attendance rate of 83 percent for the October, the latest figure it made available. But more than that, Monarch School leaders argue that they take students from San Diego who were lost to the public education system and help to re-engage them with classes. Because of that, they see a lot of students coming back to their school as they cycle through homelessness, Alvarado says.

But critics allege that this argument is self-serving, and the 2020 federal report listed Monarch School as having a higher than average chronic absentee rate, at 58.8 percent for the 2018-2019 school year (compared to a 25 percent chronically absent rate for California homeless students in general). Monarch School did not provide current chronic absentee estimates in time for publication.

Critics don’t buy the argument about stigma, either.

There are plenty of ways to address the stigma without a separate school for homeless students, Duffield argues. What’s important, in her view, is to show students that homelessness is just an experience that they are having. It does not define them, or their potential – it is a state that they are going through, and school can be a source of normalcy, stability and support, just the same as for their peers, Duffield says. If anything truly marks out students for stigma, it’s having to attend a separate school that stays on their records, she adds.

For advocates like Duffield, tackling chronic absenteeism is about addressing problems students have accessing life’s basics. It’s transportation, access to supplies and having someone who’s following up with them and noticing what’s going on in their life.

What does Monarch School’s leadership think?

When asked why other districts haven’t emulated the school, DeVries said that it’s about money. Students who come to Monarch School represent lost revenue for schools, she says, and it’s also expensive to alter traditional school models.

“The idea there tends to be: You’re creating more disruption by putting them in a spotlight,” DeVries says. “Our perspective on that is when you come to a place like Monarch School, all of our kids are dealing with the same struggle, which means it’s no longer stigmatized,” adding, “My kids don’t have to hide here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *