Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Students do better when they have a safe place to call home

October 04, 2018

Where you live matters.

That’s the upshot of the new interactive data in the Opportunity Atlas, which looks at which neighborhoods are most (and least) likely to lift a child out of poverty.

Let’s take it one step further. What if you don’t have a neighborhood, because you don’t have a home?

We’ve all been to school. It’s no surprise that when students don’t know where they’re going to sleep from one night to the next, or whether they’ll have any food for dinner, their academics suffer.

Nearly 41,000 students in my home state of Washington are experiencing homelessness, and a comprehensive new data analysis looks at their academic outcomes. The goal here is not to add to the stigma of homelessness that leads many students to hide their status and not ask for help, but to determine what we can do at a systems level – the education system, the housing system, the social service system, the community as a whole – what we can do to better support these students.

The new report from Schoolhouse Washington, a project of Building Changes, uses school-level data from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to analyze overall trends on student homelessness and compare academic outcomes of students who are homeless to those who are housed, as well as to their low-income peers who are housed. It then disaggregates those outcomes by grade level, race/ethnicity and where students reside at night.

What they found is that students experiencing homelessness fare consistently worse than even their low-income peers. This suggests that the influence of housing instability on academic outcomes is not just a problem of poverty, but a problem of affordable housing. Education outcomes are linked to housing policy.

The impact is falling disproportionately on young students – almost half of the students experiencing homelessness are in Fifth Grade or below – and their young brains will forever bear the trauma of homelessness. Children are resilient, thank goodness, but stabilizing their housing early in life can factor into not only their academic success, but also their success in social-emotional learning, relationships, and all the skills that lead to success in the workplace.

The impact also falls disproportionately on students of color. Statewide, six of every 10 students experiencing homelessness are students of color. The numbers are especially alarming for Black/African American students with one in every 11 experiencing homelessness during the 2016-17 school year. Put another way, 12 percent of all students experiencing homelessness in the state are Black/African American, even though Black/African Americans make up only 5 percent of the state’s total student population.

If we want to eliminate race-based academic achievement gaps, we have to eliminate gaps in opportunities for safe and stable housing. Students will do better in school when they have a safe place to call home.

Statewide, almost three-quarters of all students experiencing homelessness are living “doubled up” – that is, they are sharing a residence of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship or a similar reason. The Schoolhouse Washington report reveals that proficiency rates in math and English are just as poor for students living doubled-up as for unsheltered students or those living in a homeless shelter. A room, a couch, a floor, a roof, none of these are sufficient to make a home.

At the Gates Foundation, we start with the premise that all lives have equal value, and we believe that every child deserves a chance to reach their full potential, regardless of race, income, gender, or zip code.

With partners like Schoolhouse Washington, Building Changes, A Way Home Washington, All Home, Pearl Jam, and our city, county, and state governments, we insist that every child deserves a home.

Learn more by signing up for the Schoolhouse Washington mailing list and staying informed. Together, we can improve the housing stability and advance the educational success of students experiencing homelessness in our state.

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