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Minority Students Make Up Large Shares Of State's Growing Homeless Student Count

Joseph Rodriguez
AP Photo
FILE - Two formerly-homeless students work on their homework in Greensboro, N.C.

Washington schools enrolled more than 32,000 homeless students during the last school year, the highest count recorded since the state's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction began collecting data, according to a new report.

The OSPI report also shows students from minority groups make up a disproportionate share of the homeless population. For instance, though only one out of 20 students in Washington schools is black, one out of 10 homeless kids in the state is black.

Additionally, Hispanic students account for 21 percent of the students in Washington schools, but for 28.3 percent of the homeless student population. American Indian, Alaska Native and Pacific Islander students are also disproportionately represented.

Homelessness & The Opportunity Gap

A plurality of homeless students are white, with more than 14,000 lacking a "fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence." But whites make up a smaller share of the homeless student population (43.6 percent) than they do of the overall student population (57.9 percent).

"Given the opportunity gap that exists already in education because of so many other factors, [homelessness] just increases the opportunity gap for those students," said Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance.

Test score numbers in the report confirm this opportunity gap between homeless students and their peers. For example, barely a quarter of eighth graders who were homeless met the state's math standard, compared to more than half of eighth graders overall. In reading, 48.9 percent of homeless eighth graders met the standard, compared to 71.6 percent of eighth graders overall.

'The Big Difference Is Housing'

Homeless students face many of the same obstacles to learning as low income students, but unstable housing situations can make those obstacles much more difficult to overcome.

"It's a very fine distinction... I think the big difference is housing, having that stable place at night," said Katara Jordan, an attorney who focuses on homeless youth issues for the advocacy group Columbia Legal Services.

"It's kind of a simple thing when you think about it: How do you do your homework when you don't have a home to do it in? If you're living in a tent in a rural community? If you're spending the night in a car?" Myers said.

The increase in the state's homeless student county may simply reflect better data collection, the OSPI report says.

A group of Democratic state senators have introduced legislation in Olympia that would amend the state's definition of basic education to provide liaisons for homeless students in public schools.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.