Make Yourself at Home: Educators Helping Homeless Students

Overcome Education Barriers

Carol Parker, Ed.D.
Dianne Reed, Ed.D.
Jacqueline D. Smith, Ed.D.
Bernnell Peltier-Glaze, Ed.D.


Long gone are the days when the thought of homelessness conjures up the stereotypical image of a disheveled older man or woman pushing a shopping cart through an urban neighborhood—now that image is replaced with an image of a student:

Justin, a 14 year old 9th grader lives with his mother and sister in a shelter. This is their fourth shelter in 30 days, causing Justin to irregularly attend three different schools in a one-month time period. However, when in school he has trouble paying attention; he has poor social skills; he has serious mood swings; and he does not have any friends.

Unfortunately, Justin is not alone. According to a 2009 report released by the National Center on Family Homelessness, an average of one in 50 children in the United States has experienced homelessness, which is defined as not having a stable, long-term place to stay. This ranges from children temporarily living with extended family members to living in homeless shelters or inside cars.

The U.S. Education Department reported that, for the first time, the number of homeless students in America topped one million by the end of the school year, 2010-2011. The government report said 1,065,794 homeless kids were enrolled in schools in the school year, 2010-2011, an increase of 13 percent from the previous year and 57 percent since the start.

The Problem

The large number of homeless students presents a particular challenge to school systems. Unfortunately, when students become homeless, their education suffers immensely. According to The National Center on Family Homelessness (1999) in addition to emotional and health problems, homeless students are more likely to go hungry and are four times more likely to show delayed development. They have twice the rate of learning disabilities as non-homeless students and the vast majority of them lack proficiency in math and reading. Homeless students are twice as likely to repeat a grade. Twenty-one percent of homeless students repeat a grade because of frequent absence from school, compared to 5% of other students. Fourteen percent repeat a grade because they have moved to a new school, compared to 5% of other students. Within a single year 40% of homeless students attend two different schools and 28% attend three or more different schools (America’s Youngest Outcasts, 2010).

Purpose and Significance

The increasing pressure on school systems to post strong results on high-stakes tests puts school district personnel at a dilemma with how to ensure that their homeless students are adequately prepared. However, with students experiencing stress, exhaustion, hunger, insecurities and abuse related to homelessness, oftentimes the homeless students’ last concern is a test, much less a high-stakes test. Therefore, how should superintendents respond?

How school district personnel respond to homeless students and families can determine how homeless students and families respond to the expectations of school personnel.

Role Change

The traditional role of the superintendent has evolved over time in response to various expectations, constraints, and a heightened level of responsibility in today's climate of accountability (Reuter, 2009). Added to their role is the responsibility of educating homeless students and ensuring they pass high-stakes tests, thereby determining the success of the student, school and school district.

Should the superintendent ensure that there are effective district programs for the homeless student to make sure they are prepared for the high-stakes test, regardless of where his or her home is or should the superintendent relay the message throughout the district that homeless students should first feel at home, while preparing for the high-stakes test? We suggest that once the student feels at home (safe, secure, and stable) they are better able to focus on their academic achievement.


A superintendent must first be aware there are homeless students in his or her school district. Once a superintendent becomes aware of the homeless students in his or her school district, he or she needs to make sure that they know all of the laws pertaining to homeless students, specifically the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act, reauthorized as Title X, Part C, of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 (National Center for Homeless Education, 2009). This legislation lays the foundation for schools to address the needs of homeless children. The law defines homelessness as students without regular fixed and sufficient nighttime housing. A broad definition of homeless is given to include students in many situations. For example, living in housing shared by several families or frequent movement from one residence to another, shelters, parks, motels, cars, and make shift housing would be recognized as homeless (Hinz & Mizerek 2004).

In addition, the legislation provides schools with procedures to: (1) assess the needs of students, (2) provide services, and (3) enroll students quickly. School services may be facilitated by local district liaisons, also a designated position mandated by law. The liaison has specific responsibilities required by law that ensure: (a) homeless students are identified through school personnel and in conjunction with community agencies that provide social services; (b) students eligible for services and their families receive educational services such as pre-school programs and Head Start and are referred to other services (dental, mental health, health, and other appropriate services; (c) the educational rights of students are visible through public notice and are available where students and parents receives services; (d) disputes about enrollment are handled quickly and in accordance with the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act; (e) parents and guardians are informed of the educational and related opportunities available to their children and are informed of and assisted in accessing transportation services.

Not only should the superintendent know the law, but the superintendent should make sure that every administrator knows the law. The superintendent can do so through the district’s professional development office, providing session specifically to provide information on the laws pertaining to homeless students.

Perhaps, Superintendents need to review the existing procedures in their schools and make the necessary changes, specifically in the areas collaboration, intervention, and advocacy.


It has been documented that homeless students experience more discipline problems than their peers. Therefore, when a homeless student is sent to the principal’s office for misbehavior, instead of directly assigning the student to detention maybe the student should be sent to the counselor’s office. School procedures begin with administrators, teachers, and counselors working together. Oftentimes, counselors have more training in dealing with a homeless student, than the principal and/or the teacher.


Students can survive and thrive if the educators in the school are aware of their responsibilities to provide appropriate education to homeless children. Administrators and counselors could team up to provide faculty and staff development on the provisions of the law coupled with ways to create an understanding and school climate sensitive to the needs of homeless students. It is important for homeless students to have a sense of belonging at the school. Through support, encouragement, and smiles, full participation in class is possible for homeless students (Duffield, 2001; Hinz & Mizerek, 2004).

Administrators and counselors could support homeless students with appropriate school counseling, after-school programs, and summer programs. Administrators would make certain that wholesome meals, especially breakfast, are provided (Knowlton, 2006). To extend like services, school personnel could facilitate such services as needed for personal care items, laundry facilities, clothing and showers.

Teachers can help by providing a small special place for the homeless students to keep their school belongings. Having a safe place at school for their belongings might provide the only place homeless students can call their own. Teachers can also provide reasonable support through educational modifications such as providing a period of transition to normal accountability standards. Another worthwhile service might be tutoring regularly with an adult. Offering a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult could provide the affirmation that leads to school success.

Teachers could offer a buddy to new homeless students to help with the transition and adjustment that comes with becoming comfortable in an unfamiliar environment. The homeless student would have help with learning the rules, procedures, and routines of unfamiliar surroundings. Having a buddy would help the homeless student to find a comfortable place in student-centered places at the school such as the playground or cafeteria.


In addition to collaboration among school personnel, interventions that are sensitive and discrete without jeopardizing the housing arrangements or violating the privacy of homeless families can be established. Homeless families can be adequately linked to federal resources and the school can seek grants to fund programs for the homeless families. Offering educational programs and classes for parents to enhance their skills and provide moral support is also suggested.

Since homeless students are known for excessive absences, providing transportation to and from the shelter can decrease student absences. However, sometimes students have to move to a different shelter for various reasons, but because of the positive environment the current school established, students/families may want to remain at the current school, therefore, ensuring a seamless transition when and if the family moves during the school year by providing transportation if the student and parents wishes to remain in the school. If remaining at the current school is not a possibility, helping with a transfer by contacting personnel at the new school and getting the records and other necessary information to help with the transfer could greatly increase student attendance.


In order to truly help homeless students, all stakeholders must be informed with information about the needs of and ways of working with homeless students and parents. Some resources for advocacy references are:

Every child deserves to receive an education; however, in order to receive an education, children must regularly attend school. Oftentimes, regularly attending school is a challenge for homeless students; therefore, whatever programs Superintendents can implement in their school systems make students feel at home, while at school, can help students focus on their academic achievement. More than anything else, homeless children need homes. As long as there is an insufficient supply of affordable permanent housing in the United States, and as long as the gap between rich and poor widens, homeless children will suffer the consequences.

Legislation designed to minimize educational disruption when families lose their homes has also been helpful. However, perhaps the most helpful intervention is when schools provide an environment that supports these children's physical, emotional, and social development.


“America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010: State Report Card on Child Homelessness,” National Center on Family Homelessness. Retrieved from

Duffield, B. (2001). The educational rights of homeless children: Policies and practices, Educational Studies.

Hinz, E. E. & Mizerek, E. A. (2004). Helping homeless students. Principal Leadership, 4(9), 10- 13.

Knowlton, A. S. (2006). Helping the homeless: What educators can do to ease the pain. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 73(1). 17-19.

National Center for Homeless Education (2009). What school district administrators should know about the educational rights of children displaced by disaster. Retrieved from

Wallace Foundation (2013). The school principal as leader: Guiding schools to better teaching and learning. Wallace Foundation, New York: New York.

About the Authors:

Carol H. Parker, Ed.D., Associate Professor, Department of Educational Leadership and Counseling, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX,

Dianne Reed, Ed..D., Professor, Department of Leadership and Counseling, Houston Baptist University, Houston, TX,

Jacqueline D. Smith, Ed.D, Assistant Professor, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Texas Southern University, Houston, TX,

Peltier-Glaze, Bernnell, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Administration and Foundations, Texas Southern University, Houston, TX,