The state auditor's report examined six school districts across the state, one located in the Bay Area (Vallejo City Unified) while the others were spread throughout the Central Valley and Southern California. Representatives of nearly all the school districts acknowledged they could be doing a better job at tracking down homeless students, but they lacked trained staff who were versed in the federal requirements.
Across all the schools that were investigated, the standards and practices for student homelessness were all over the map. Some school districts used questionnaires to ask students about their housing situation; others had no consistent strategy. Many school administrators pointed out that families are often reluctant to identify themselves as homeless.
While many school officials acknowledged they were falling short of their obligations, they faced no repercussions and got little guidance from state officials, according to the auditor's report. The state Department of Education is supposed to monitor how schools track homeless students, but fewer than 1% of school districts actually receive state oversight.
Students who lack stable housing face a series of disadvantages at school, and statistically they are twice as likely to be absent, suspended or drop out of school. If students lack a consistent diet or sleep schedule, they are often unable to focus on their education and they are at higher risk of health complications.
Homeless student reporting gained new attention earlier this year as several state legislators called for an investigation after seeing hundreds of school districts reporting numbers that were suspiciously low. School districts are supposed to use a broad definition of homelessness, which counts students who are couch surfing, doubling up in bedrooms, or living out of vehicles. Last year, about one in 25 California school districts claimed they had no homeless students at any point in the school year.
Locally, the Mountain View Whisman School District reports no homeless students attend Huff or Stevenson elementary schools. Palo Alto Unified lists no homeless students at half of its 16 elementary and middle school campuses. The Los Altos School District reports no homeless students at any of its seven elementary schools.
These low school numbers fly in the face of other data showing more people living on the streets than any time in recent memory. A county-by-county street count conducted earlier this year showed large spikes in homelessness across the Bay Area over the last two years, including increases of 31% in Santa Clara, 30% in San Francisco, 45% in Alameda and 21% in San Mateo counties. Even Los Altos showed skyrocketing homeless numbers, jumping from two people in 2017 up to 76 this year.
It should come as no surprise that schools have done a poor job of tracking student homelessness, said San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu. To anyone who examined the data, it was clear that many schools were ignoring this duty, he said.
"Student homelessness is not an issue that will simply go away if we pretend it isn't happening," Chiu said. "If students experiencing homelessness are not being identified, they are not getting access to the services they need to be successful."
On the plus side, Chiu pointed out that there are some relatively easy fixes to solve this problem. The state auditor's report urges lawmakers to make it mandatory to distribute annual questionnaires to student to learn about their housing situation. Schools were admonished to do a better job training their staff about homelessness, and similar information should be posted throughout schools and on their websites.
Meanwhile, the auditor's report suggests the state Department of Education must provide stronger guidance and monitoring for schools. State officials should be able to use the available data to determine schools that are neglecting homeless students or following outdated policies.
Those recommendations will likely be taken up by state lawmakers in the upcoming legislative year, according to Chiu's office.
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