Closing the Achievement Gap for Homeless Children

When he was just 12 years old, hunger and homelessness were taking its toll on Lucas and his schoolwork. A car accident had left his mother unable to work, which then fed a depression and anxiety that led to the family falling behind on their bills. The stress left little energy for Lucas to perform at school. He was falling behind his peers, not completing his school work, and was being disrespectful to his teachers. Without intervention, Lucas’s achievement gap could become too wide to clear.

For the 11th straight year, Massachusetts schools this year topped the nation in academic achievement of its students. But students like Lucas need extra support and attention in order to make this grade. For Lucas, that support came from Housing Families in Malden.

The family entered Housing Families’ stabilization program, and their case manager recommended the GREAT Youth and Families Program for Lucas. Here Lucas felt safe and supported. “We understood that Lucas’s trauma was holding him back, not his ability or motivation to learn,” said Ed Cameron, CEO at Housing Families, a partner agency of United Way.. “With our supports addressing both his mental health and academic success, Lucas began to heal.”

Today, Lucas completes his schoolwork, stays for tutoring, finds productive ways to calm himself when he feels his temper rising, and is by all accounts a self-driven and dedicated student.

the toll of homelessness on school success

According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, in 2017 there were more than 21,000 students experiencing homelessness during the school year. The research shows clearly that housing instability is inextricably linked to poorer attendance, academic performance, behavior and rate of graduation.

“Housing instability has far-reaching implications,” says Sarah Bartley, Senior Director for Community Impact at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “The disruption and isolation associated with homelessness negatively impacts child health and well-being. Parents struggle to find and keep jobs, access school transportation, or participate in school activities with their children. The fiscal and social costs that are placed on Massachusetts municipalities and school districts are incredibly burdensome, as they try to provide the support families need to maintain long-term stability in housing, education and family finances.”

keeping kids in their homes keeps kids in school

Last year, the GREAT Youth and Families program of Housing Families provided individualized, one-on-one support to 125 students, who were primarily living in shelters, motels or public housing from the communities of Malden, Medford, Everett, Revere and Chelsea. The results are significant: over the past five years, 95% of children receiving these intensive services showed growth in their emotional skills, 91% showed growth in their social skills and 88% showed growth in their academic skills.

Nearby in Lynn, a partnership between United Way, the Lynn Public School District and the Lynn Housing Authority and Neighborhood Development (LHAND) has transformed the way school-age children who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness are supported. With funding from the Siemer Institute, United Way launched Project RISE in 2014, connecting families and students to school and community-based resources rather than expecting families with unstable housing situations to navigate a system of supports on their own.

“The Project RISE partnership is reducing disruptive school moves, preventing homelessness, helping families to develop greater financial wellbeing and contributing to increased attendance and positive educational outcomes for vulnerable students,” Bartley says.

The Boston-based Family-Led Stability Pilot is another place-based partnership between the City of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, Boston Housing Authority, nonprofit organizations, schools and housing providers.

Launched in January in partnership with six schools in Roxbury, the Family-Led Stability Pilot is working to coordinate housing, education and health services to reduce homelessness and improve educational outcomes for an estimated 165 children who attend these schools. Since January, Project Hope and Higher Ground have screened 156 students. Of those, 30 students have obtained stable housing to date.

“We provide our school partners with training and resources for educators to recognize the signs and respond to students experiencing housing instability or homelessness,” says Christine Dixon, Executive Director of Project Hope, which has been working with three of the partner schools since 2012 in partnership with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Schools can then connect families directly to our housing team of Family Partners who will work closely with families to address their housing needs.”

addressing the unique challenges of children at risk

Children in communities with high rates of poverty and limited access to services and resources are among the vulnerable students who need support. United Way awarded funding this year to Friends of the Children Boston, which works with Boston Public Schools in high poverty neighborhoods in Dorchester and Roxbury to identify children experiencing severe emotional and behavioral problems.

These students are paired with a Friend, a caring, professional adult mentor who spends 16 hours per month providing social and emotional support and often help families navigate challenges such as poverty, homelessness, neglect, parental incarceration and domestic violence.

The results of this support and intervention show the impact of this commitment: 90 percent of the youth in their program are on track to graduate high school, although 41% of their parents did not.

These and other programs supported by United Way are contributing to Massachusetts’ high ranking for academic achievement and school success. Providing intensive supports and services to students living and learning under incredibly difficult circumstances is working, and the impact of these programs could be even more powerful if they could be scaled and replicated in other communities.

“Until all of our most vulnerable students achieve educational success, number one is not good enough,” Bartley says. “By focusing students experiencing homelessness and their families, and on young people who have left school and fallen through the cracks, we can help ensure that those living in the best state in the nation for education reap the same benefit benefits.”