Homelessness and Remarkable Acts from Teachers

Earlier this week, the Oregon Department of Education reported that during the 2016-2017 school year, 22,541 students were homeless at some point in the school year. That's a 5.6% jump from the prior year's number.

I'm still trying to figure out why this isn't a bigger deal on social media, in traditional media, with politicians. How is this not considered a crisis? Over 22,000 Oregon students who, at some point last year, didn't know where they were going to sleep at night. This is a big deal. An embarrassment. A crisis.

The numbers nationally are staggering, too. From a recent article by NPR: "some 4.2 million young people experience unaccompanied homelessness in the course of a year." And if you thought this was a problem confined mostly to urban spaces, you would be wrong. According to Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, rates of homelessness among youth between 13 and 17 were actually slightly higher in rural counties. The same study confirms that homelessness has a significantly larger impact on underserved youth, including LGBTQ youth, Latino youth, black youth, and unmarried parents.

It's statistics like this that make it hard not to side with David Berliner, who said we spend so much time and energy focusing on improving the outputs of our education system (test scores, graduation rates, job readiness, etc.) that we forget to spend time on the inputs -- like poverty, food insecurity, medical coverage, and, yes, homelessness. Oregon, in its pursuit to raise high school graduation rates, is expecting 22,541 students to show up to school every morning and learn their times tables, or how to write an essay, or algebra -- despite not having a home to sleep in the night before. How on Earth can we expect these children to not be chronically absent?

But then I can hear Mike Johnston's line ring in my ear: "If we believe we're waiting to change poverty, then we can be patient for a long time." And I don't want to be patient -- because there are 22,541 students in Oregon that can't afford to wait.

Yesterday morning, one of my classmates gave a presentation to my Policy, Organization, and Leadership Studies seminar. He was a teacher on a reservation in South Dakota and he spoke about the peaks and valleys of teaching students with challenging home lives. The wins, like when one of his students got into a good college, are cause for giant celebrations. The valleys, like when a former student committed suicide, are unimaginably low and dark and lonely. One story he told that particularly stood out to me was when a student came to his class exhausted; there was a party at the student's house with loud music and lots of alcohol until about 7:00am the night before -- he didn't sleep a wink. The kid could barely keep his eyes open. What's a teacher to do in a situation like this? This teacher told the kid to close his eyes and get some sleep during class. That's about the best he could do for that kid. Learning new math concepts was not in the cards for that kid on that day, it seemed.

But maybe learning math was in the cards. This teacher did something else, too. He told the student to come see him after school. The kid wasn't in trouble. He wasn't going to be yelled at or even interrogated. He was going to be taught. When the student showed up, he received personalized instruction on that day's math curriculum to make sure he didn't fall behind his classmates. 

Teachers do remarkable things like that, don't they? Even when nobody notices. I'm not sure how long it will take to "solve" homelessness or "solve" poverty, but I doubt it will be anytime soon. I do know, however, that smaller class sizes and better teacher salaries and more classroom resources will make remarkable, above-and-beyond acts like unpaid after school instruction a lot more likely from overworked, stressed out teachers. Maybe one way to address these challenges is to better prepare the school systems to mitigate the "inputs" that the students bring with them to class -- no doubt that would improve the "outputs," too.