SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – As the number of people living in cars and on the street has boomed, the state auditor said Thursday that California schools and regulators are not doing enough to connect hundreds of thousands of homeless students to help with tutoring, transportation and school supplies.
Rounds of studies have shown that youth experiencing homelessness are more likely to drop out of high school, develop chronic health conditions and use alcohol or drugs compared to students in stable homes. Experts say a teacher or administrator simply identifying that a K-12 student is homeless is a critical first step in improving academic performance.
Spurred by lawmakers looking for solutions to the state’s homelessness crisis, State Auditor Elaine Howle surveyed six school districts along with the Department of Education to see how they were administrating help to homeless students.
The audit found four of the districts identified less than 3% of their economically disadvantaged students -those eligible for free or reduced-price meals- as homeless, lower than the 5 to 10% estimate set by education experts.
In addition, Howle says none of the school districts gave adequate training to enable staff to better identify affected students, and just one distributed information about services available to the homeless.
“When [districts] do not disseminate information to all stakeholders about the rights of these youth, they hinder their own ability to identify all of them,” the audit states.
Howle pins most of the blame on the department, blasting it for a lack of oversight over California school districts. She says the department hasn’t fully developed training materials for the local districts to implement and that it only checked in on about 20 of the nearly 2,300 districts to make sure they were complying with a federal program that gives funds for homeless and low-income students.
“Considering the severity of homelessness in California, the department’s review of so few districts is concerning,” Howle said. “The department’s inadequate monitoring efforts have likely contributed to the issues we identified at the six districts.”
Furthermore, the audit says the department has done a poor job of using available data to pinpoint districts that may be underreporting. It also found that California devotes fewer staff to administer its statewide homeless education program than other states, just 2.5 employees during the 2018-19 academic year.
“Although the department has known about the limited resources for more than a decade, it has not made adding more resources a priority,” the audit continues. “In fact, the department did not reassign an additional staff member to the homeless education program from another division until after we began this audit.”
The latest cumulative survey found that California school districts identified more than 269,000 K-12 students as experiencing homelessness. Los Angeles Unified reported the most homeless students in 2016-17 with nearly 20,000, followed by San Diego Unified with 7,300. Meanwhile five districts responded that more than 30% of their enrolled students were homeless.
Nationwide, districts identified more than 1.35 million students that were experiencing homelessness.
Howle recommends that the department conduct a staffing analysis by May 2020 to determine whether new positions are needed, and that it update training materials given to school districts.
She also suggests that lawmakers require schools to distribute housing questionnaires to all students and families as well as new staff recognition training.
The audited districts, Birmingham Community Charter High School, Greenfield Union, Gridley Unified, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified, San Bernardino City Unified and Vallejo City Unified agreed with and said they will implement Howle’s recommendations. The department “generally agreed” but said a staffing analysis wasn’t necessary.