Every period, every day, I greet students at the door so I can have a pre-class check-in. I joke with kids, compliment fades, eyebrows and edges. I get updates on their uncle’s immigration hearings or we commiserate over the sad state of affairs of the local soccer team. It’s a ritual in room No. 306 and one of my favorite aspects of my day.
During one of these check-ins, a while back, a student handed me a note. This is unusual, but not unheard of.
The student is a bright, pleasant young man, considering military service. He is well liked by staff and his classmates. The day before he seemed to be having a rough go of it. He looked tired and zoned out during the classroom conversation. I shoved the note in my pocket to read later. During my planning period I pulled it out. It was brief: “I’m homeless right now. I’m living in my car. I’m trying my best. I need your understanding, but I don’t want your pity.”
That’s it. Twenty-three words that sent me scrambling—questioning myself, my practice and my assumptions.
I think I’m plugged into what’s going on with my students, but I realized in that moment that I had no idea. The next day I pulled him aside for a brief conversation. I apologized. I felt like a fool for not knowing. I also felt frustrated because he was the 12th student this year to confide in me that they were homeless.
As teachers, our lives are generally stable. I have worked at the same school since 2009, lived in the same home since 2011, taught government since 2012. My life has a sense of predictability about it; the lives of my students are anything but.
Homelessness is a silent epidemic impacting our most vulnerable students and families. My school is in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. It has all the telltale signs: The local taco truck recently gave way to a soon-to-be-completed Starbucks. Year-over-year rent increases are among the highest in the nation. Families are being displaced and students are traveling from further out to attend school.
We’re not alone. You’ll find the same patterns in the Bay Area, parts of Chicago, Denver and D.C. Rising rents create unstable housing situations, which send families scrambling, which leads to chaos in students’ lives, which impacts their learning, attendance and growth.
I’m pretty good at this teaching thing—but even I struggle to get a student to focus on the minutiae of government when their minds are elsewhere: Where will they sleep? Is there room at the shelter? Can their family stay with their auntie this week?
We fail to serve homeless students in a myriad of ways. Among the most glaring: Our homeless students are most clustered in our lowest income schools. For obvious reasons, many students keep their family’s status to themselves and teachers (self-included) confuse life turmoil with apathy, indifference and laziness.
McKinney Vento, a federal law that helps identify and provide support to homeless students, is essentially an unfunded federal mandate on schools and districts. It’s toothless. Many schools simply do not have the resources to support students with the services required by the law.
We’re generally in denial about the national housing situation. We simply have not built enough housing over the last few decades. As the millennial generation enters the market there is not enough housing stock available, driving up rental costs for families.
Public education is among the most important innovations of the last 250 years. Collectively, we have decided that every American needs a basic grounding in literacy, mathematics, the humanities and the arts.
Unlike other states like Bulgaria, Japan or Mexico, we are a state that is defined by our ideals, rather than an ethnic experience. We learn what it means to be an American in school. But, how can schools serve their role as a places of socialization and values transmission if we can not help meet the needs of our most vulnerable learners? We can’t.
We owe our homeless students better.