Of the many academic risk factors that students face, homelessness may be one of the worst according to a study released today.
Researchers looked at Minneapolis public school students over a six-year span and found that homelessness and high mobility had a greater effect on grades than other poverty-based measure.
Even the most basic elements of school like homework and studying can be tough to sort out for homeless students, or those considered highly mobile because they move more than three times in a year.
One Minneapolis 8th grader staying in a downtown homeless shelter with his mom and younger brother and sister typifies the issue. For him, just finding a quiet place to study and do homework can be a challenge.
"Basically I'll do it in the room, or I'll go into the TV room when nobody is there and just do my homework there," he said.
MPR News agreed not to use his name for this story, which is based on findings in the journal "Child Development."
"If you're homeless or highly mobile at any point, your achievement is chronically lower," said the study's lead author. J.J. Cutuli, now a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. The study is based on data from the Minneapolis school district and was compiled while Cutulee was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.
Cutuli's study is the first to take a long-term look at homelessness and test scores. It considered enrollment and test data for more than 26,000 students in third through eighth grade in Minneapolis and found that the general student population scored from the 75th to 80th percentile in math and reading, compared to other third through eighth graders across the country.
Homeless students scored far lower, in the 12th to 18th percentile range, several points below other low income students who are not homeless.
The reasons are many. Homeless students have trouble with attendance, health and nutrition. Another big challenge for homeless students is concentrating while they are in school, because of turmoil in their personal lives, said Elizabeth Hinz, liaison for homeless and highly mobile students in the Minneapolis district.
"Because of worries, because of anxieties that they have with this constant shifting living environment," Hinz said. "Or maybe a very unsafe or unhappy living environment."
The previously mentioned 8th grader bucks the trend though, saying he earns Bs and the occasional C in school. He represents a subset of Minneapolis homeless students. Forty-five percent of homeless students scored average or better than average. Researchers say more studies are required to find out what's being done to support those students in school.
He concentrates on his schoolwork and tries not to worry about his living situation.
"You shouldn't be worrying about that, that's your parent's job," he said."I just go with the flow."
But Hinz knows one thing that helps: keeping homeless students in the same school throughout the year.
Federal law requires districts transport homeless students to and from school, even if they move to another district.
"That is absolutely key for helping kids stay on track," Hinz said. "That is so important."
Advocates for homeless students say even more should be done. They're pushing districts to do more early childhood screening to find out the educational needs of homeless children even before they start school.
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