Graduating high school in Oregon isn’t always easy. Even though last year the state saw the largest graduating class on record, 20% of seniors still didn’t graduate. That is despite graduation requirements being loosened during the COVID-19 pandemic. If students are worried about finances, food and housing — and experiencing homelessness — it is even harder to get a diploma.
Kathleen is a 22-year-old living in Eugene, Oregon. We’re not using her full name to protect her privacy. She’s a young mother of two kids and recently started working as a peer support specialist for a local non-profit that helps youth experiencing homelessness. But Kathleen’s own journey hasn’t been easy. Her experience with homelessness in high school almost prevented her from getting her diploma.
Kathleen has experienced trauma since the age of seven when her father died after suffering from schizophrenia and depression. Her mother struggled to take care of Kathleen and her three siblings. At the age of 14, Kathleen was sexually assaulted. A year later she decided to leave home.
“So I ran away and I was homeless for maybe six months before I found out I was pregnant with my son,” said Kathleen. “So I actually have another child. I gave him up for adoption because I was 16 and I was homeless and I wasn't ready to have a baby.”
After delivering her baby and giving him up, she found herself homeless again, camping in the woods with the father of her child and struggling to find food.
Needless to say, her education wasn’t her first priority.
But after receiving housing assistance from New Roads, an alternative education program for youth experiencing homelessness, her entire life started to change. She was able to receive housing, earned her GED when she was 18, and was later able to pay for her housing all on her own while supporting her children.
“It had been years that I had been getting handouts from people,” said Kathleen. “And I'm grateful for all of them. I have a lifetime of debt to everybody that helped me get to where I am. But [now] I am really proud to say that, ‘I got this.’”
One of the people who helped her along the way was Julia Johnson, the Outreach and Re-engagement Specialist at the Eugene 4J School District.
Finding the Hardest to Reach Students
Johnson started in this position in 2015. She identifies struggling students before they drop out, finds youth who aren’t actively engaged in school, and works with educators to make sure students feel welcome when they return.
“My role is really managing the movement of students,” said Johnson. “And keeping track of them, and when they go away, building teams that help to get them back. And then educating the community that you can come back.”
To her knowledge, she’s the only person who specifically focuses on re-engagement in Lane County’s entire 16-district school system.
As part of the district’s alternative education referral team, she helps high school-aged students become re-engaged in learning so they can receive a diploma — whether that means graduating through their comprehensive high school, an alternative school, or getting a GED.
Since every student has different needs, it may not be immediately clear what the best course of action is to get them re-engaged. Johnson connects students with staff at the district’s reconnection center to develop an individualized re-engagement plan and provide social and emotional support. The district also works with students to redesign their plans, knowing that youth may need multiple education plans before finishing their high school.
There are other state-funded positions that address the educational needs of youth in foster care, students experiencing homelessness with a family and unaccompanied minors. They are known as McKinney Vento liaisons, based on a piece of federal legislation that mandates states ensure the educational rights and protections for these youth. These liaisons provide resources to the students they already know, or who are newly identified. But Johnson’s role is different — she finds any youth ages 21 and under who are struggling or aren’t engaged in school, including students who are young parents or experiencing homelessness.
Lack of Data Means It’s Hard to Know What’s Working
The caseloads for McKinney Vento liaisons in Oregon are heavy. During the last school year, over 20,000 students experienced homelessness. That’s quadruple the number since the program started. Still, the state saw the graduation rates for students experiencing homelssness increase slightly from 55.4% to 60.4% during the 2019-2020 school year.
But Sara Shaw,the Early Childhood Research Scientist with Child Trends, a national research organization focused on children's wellbeing, said the increase in graduation rates should be considered with a grain of salt.
“We know enrollment is down in school districts across Oregon,” said Shaw. “So is it that the hardest to reach students are students experiencing homelessness and they're not enrolled? Or is it the change in graduation requirements that has led to this increase?”
Shaw said there were two studies in 2001 and 2009 that show the implementation of the McKinney Vento act led to higher school attendance, and an increase in state testing for students experiencing homelessness. But she said there hasn’t been extensive research since the act was amended in 2015 to expand the responsibilities of the liaisons.
“There has not been a robust impact evaluation of the education for homeless children and youth program, which is authorized under the McKinney Vento Act,” said Shaw. “So we don't have a really clear sense of the impact of these programs.”
This isn’t the only data that isn’t tracked well. Oregon, like many states, does not have a coordinated data collection system to identify students through the public systems they interact with, such as the education system, housing systems, child welfare and juvenile justice.
“I think one of the challenges is that we're still kind of focused on just how do we identify all of the students before we even get to the point where we're talking about what are the best practices,” said Shaw.
Going Where the Youth Are
In order to streamline re-engagement services, especially during remote learning and the pandemic, the Eugene 4J district partnered with Youth Era in January. The non-profit, which works to remove stigma associated with homelessness, provides services to youth across Oregon as well as to a community in Pennsylvania.
According to the McKinney Vento Act, school districts are required to work with local organizations like Youth Era in order to provide services to help youth meet their basic needs. But this is one of a few collaborations that actually provides outreach to re-enroll students.
This rarity may also extend nationally. Sara Shaw with Child Trends previously surveyed shelter providers from across the country and asked them whether they had a formal relationship with their local McKinney Vento liaison. Only 50% said yes.
This summer, Youth Era will open one of the only low-barrier youth hostels in Lane County, known as Eugene Drop, which will provide young people with a place to sleep at no cost.
Now Johnson goes to the Eugene Drop to work with students three times a week. Johnson said her work in Oregon symbolizes a shift in school districts providing more than just instruction.
“I think the reason why it's successful is because they get connected to the people in their school, and then the people in their school are also the ones that are helping them,” said Johnson. “And that's just a really great relationship. It's beneficial for more than just meeting their needs — it then helps them to become more academically connected.”
One of the ways she finds students is by spending as much as 10 hours a week walking around the Eugene Public Library, dipping into alleys, passing through the Whitteaker neighborhood, and skanning other areas of downtown Eugene. Johnson said it’s worth the time because in order to do her job, she has to be where the kids are.
“I think it has to do with maybe some misconceptions that the students that we work with don't want to be in school,” said Johnson. “I don't necessarily think that's true. They may not prioritize it or know how to make it a priority. So when I go to their space, and I connect with them in their place where they're comfortable, and I value them or acknowledge that I’m there and then start the conversation, it tends to be a lot more productive.”
And it can be even harder to find kids now that the spaces they usually frequent — such as the library’s teen center — are closed due to the pandemic. Last summer she was reduced to connecting with students over the phone by calling or texting because the district didn’t allow in-person engagement. Since she doesn’t know if youth will go back to the same spaces as buildings reopen, it’s still difficult to find youth.
It is hard to track tangible success rates for the students Johnson's worked with. That’s because the data doesn’t exist. It's technically outside of the measurables that schools look at such as attendance, GPA, test scores, or GED and graduation rates. Tracking that data would require the district to follow the progression of individual students across many different metrics throughout their high school career — something the district is unlikely to have the capacity to do.
Even if this data was tracked, Johnson wonders if the way education systems measure outcomes needs to change due to the inequities students experiencing homelessness face when trying to receive a “traditional” education.
“Do we continue to ask students that have really challenging lives to, you know, ‘Buck up and live differently beyond their own circumstances?’” Johnson said, “Or do we begin to look at, what does success look like for students under these circumstances, and do we change the outcomes so that they can be successful? Because in a lot of ways they are.”
County-Wide Effort Could Increase Graduation Rates
Other organizations such as Connected Lane County, which works with the Lane Education Service District, is trying to re-engage students across the county and provide them with services to meet their basic needs, receive a high school diploma and pursue a career.
In less than a year, the organization has re-enrolled 250 youth who had dropped out.
Jenna Ely has been a youth employment facilitator with Connected Lane County since January. Her position was created through the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) — a federal grant given to communities to focus on education and employment support for unhoused youth. Not only does the funding support case management, it pays students for their jobs and helps youth purchase supplies such as work boots, clothing items or driver's ed testing.
Ely works with youth who are unhoused, living in cars, in transitional living, or in a juvenile justice program. As of now, two of the 13 youth Ely works with are sleeping on the street or in their vehicles. But once her caseload expands to 35 youth in June, she expects she’ll be working with an increased number of youth living on the streets.
Ely is currently assisting a 17-year-old who has been unenrolled in school for the past two years while they and their sibling navigated couch surfing, camping by the river and staying in trailers. But after getting a housing unit two months ago at a local transitional living program, they were able to re-enroll in school within a month.
“If you can get a youth into housing, you can lay a foundation for them to feel safe enough to start seeking out other services, including education and employment,” said Ely.
Although programs like these have been helpful, Julia Johnson still wishes there was a way to work with other school districts in the area. Students who have gained assistance through the McKinney Vento Act have the right to stay at their original school district if they move. But other barriers, such as transportation, often prevent students from using that option, and provide youth with less autonomy.
“I wish there was a coordinated way to move with these students that was more overarching over all the school districts,” said Johnson. “So that we could talk about the programs that each school district has — how could they be more aligned? How could they be more familiar as a student moves from one part of the community to another part of the community, and all of a sudden they're in a new school district? I run into that a lot.”
Rural Non-Profit is a Leader in Youth Re-Engagement
But once students are re-enrolled in school, it can be difficult for them to stay enrolled and finish high school while continuing to navigate homelessness.
Jaerod is a 19-year-old high school senior in Medford. He’s had some challenges graduating high school. He was unable to graduate after he switched schools last year and some of his credits for subjects didn’t transfer. This is his second year as a 12th grader and if he wants to graduate, he’ll have to continue school next fall.
But Jaerod has a lot going on. He’s been living in a motel for about four months while he waits for his grandmother to be released from a hospital.
“I can't really focus on the school as much as I should because of the whole, ‘I don't know where I'm going to be or what I'm doing in a couple of weeks from now,’” said Jaerod. “So it's kind of gotten to a point where it's like, I can focus on school only as much as my brain lets me focus on school. Which is not much anymore.”
Even though he’s staying with his uncle, they both have a disability, making it hard to maintain a steady cash flow. Jaerod said he has been trying to figure out if their health insurance can pay for their motel stay. But he’s also trying to find a more permanent solution so his family members can move into a house. He’s also looking after his teenage sister.
Throughout this time he’s been able to rely on the Maslow Project, a nonprofit that works with the local school district and connects youth experiencing homelessness with resources. Jaerod has used the program off and on for the past five years.
The organization has a housing manager who works with two housing units to help youth find shelter. But when there aren’t vacancies, her hands are tied when it comes to helping youth like Jaerod get off of waiting lists. Still, the Maslow Project has been helping him navigate the application for a local transitional living program, as well as academic assistance.
“Maslow was really helpful getting me what I need to make sure I keep a roof over my head,” said Jaerod. “They brought me some paperwork the other day to fill out for transitional living. And Stephanie here got me a sketchbook the other day to keep my mind off things. Because I have intense anxiety and depression so I overthink everything.”
Stephanie Polendey is a Student Success Advocate with the Maslow Project. She’s only worked for the non-profit for a year and said one of the reasons she joined the team is because she wanted to provide more social and emotional support to youth through harm reduction techniques.
“I think there's a lot of sort of band aid services that are just, ‘oh, like we'll give you a hot meal, we'll give you [a] temporary shower setup or whatever, but it's not deeply rooted to try to actually build [and] help guide people to long term success,” said Polendy.
How Many Homeless Youth Complete Higher Education? It’s Unknown
Higher education is not for everyone. Polendey said only about 25% of her current caseload are youth who are aspiring to go to college or university. A lot of her students don’t want to attend a college or a university right out of high school, or at all. Some would rather have a full-time job or pursue a vocational career by starting with an internship or apprenticeship.
There is data on the number of students statewide who graduated while experiencing homelessnes and then enrolled in higher education. But it’s unclear how many of these students stayed enrolled throughout their higher education career. That’s because this data is also not tracked.
A partnership between the Oregon Department of Education, the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Committee and the Oregon Economic Development Administration, to collect this data could change this. But in order to do this, they would need consistent data from institutions, and more funding from the state to fill data analyst positions — funding that experts say is unlikely to be available this year.
Still, tracking graduation and college enrollment and retention data could help determine what youth like Kathleen and Jaerod need in order to pursue higher education. She’s interested in going to college, but she’s not quite sure how she’s going to juggle school, a job and parenthood all at the same time. Let alone actually afford higher education.
“I thought about going to college before,” said Kathleen. “And it just seemed very complicated to try and do all the scholarship stuff. It just seemed complicated and a very long process.”
This project was made possible by a grant from the Education Writers Association.