New Hope for the Homeless

They number in the millions and they often are hidden in plain sight.

They number in the millions and they often are hidden in plain sight.  There are 1.3 million students who are homeless in American schools, yet many fear the stigma of sharing their vulnerability with their peers and teachers, making the provision of supports more difficult for those who most need it.  The risks of perpetuating the cycle of homelessness and poverty are high.

Homeless students have among the lowest graduation rates in the nation and failing to graduate from high school is the leading risk factor for becoming homeless as an adult.   The combination of high school dropout and homelessness is a double threat to everything a young person might want to achieve in life.  While complex, the student homelessness challenge is a solvable one and there are models across the nation that inspire.  One is Monument Academy Public Charter School in Washington, DC.

Walk the halls of Monument Academy and you see order, respect, and even inspiration.  Students are dressed in uniforms, greet one another and teachers by name, and are surrounded by uplifting messages on school walls.  One message says, “We can push through anything we put our minds to”; another, “Don’t go through life, grow through life.”   The words that come to mind to describe the school culture are “love with structure and discipline.”

What’s remarkable are both the student population at Monument and the school model designed to ensure every one of them has the supports they need to stay on track.   Monument is a weekday boarding school for the highest risk students and their families enmeshed in different systems – foster care, juvenile justice, trauma-impacted and more.  Thirty-five percent of students at Monument Academy are homeless in a city whose homeless crisis has doubled since 2014.  Couples who serve as surrogate parents during the week house and support students at Monument with everything from homework to healthy meals to counseling.

Schools like Monument can be pillars of stability for students whose lives are chaotic and traumatic– and a model for the nation.  Schools such as Monument can help in at least three ways. 

First, schools are increasingly recognizing that personalized education that deliberately fosters the social and emotional well being of children leads to better outcomes.  Addressing the needs of the whole child helps keep students in school and on track.

Second, schools are in a strong position to provide and broker the necessary wrap around services that homeless students and their peers often need.  Addressing trauma, mental health challenges, and other practical life issues like food insecurity, lack of a stable place to do homework, and transportation requires a dedicated team of teachers, counselors, clinicians and homeless liaisons who work seamlessly together.  The liaison at Monument brokers supports that include finding stable housing, ensuring regular meals, and facilitating mental health supports for homeless students. 

Third, schools can go big and bold and offer weekday boarding with a high return on investment.  Monument cites things such as providing washing machines so students don’t feel stigmatized by unclean clothes; two caring adults around the clock who house the students onsite and act as surrogates; and a predictable place to sleep, eat nutritious food, and experience extended day enrichment.  Higher academic attainment, reduced need for special education services, increased graduation rates and better outcomes in postsecondary education and employment all offset the higher initial cost for schools.

The National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development released a unanimous report from top scientists highlighting the latest evidence: “Children with stronger social and emotional competencies are also more likely to enter and graduate from college, succeed in their careers, have positive work and family relationships, better mental and physical health, reduced criminal behavior, and to become engaged citizens.”

Places like Monument Academy that educate and support the whole child are showing the nation what can be achieved.  At a time when student homelessness is on the rise, schools can be places of stability and inspiration that unleash a generation of young people from the most vulnerable circumstances to reach for the American Dream.

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