Half of Oregon’s homeless students aren’t graduating from high school on time.
For the first time, the Oregon Department of Education published a four-year graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness. The rate was included in statewide data released Thursday.
The result — only 50.7 percent of these students are graduating in four years.
When including students who graduated in five years and those who earned a modified diploma or GED — students considered “completers” — the rate rises to 63.1 percent.
Homeless students have experienced a “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence” at some time in their K-12 career, according to the department.
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This looks different for each student. For some, being homeless means living in an emergency shelter with their families, while others are sleeping in tents or cars, or crashing on friends’ couches.
More than 22,540 of Oregon’s K-12 students, about four percent of Oregon’s total K-12 enrollment, were homeless in the 2016-17 school year.
This is the highest rate of homeless students yet, increasing from 19,040 students in 2009-10.
Main report: Oregon graduation rates up, Latino students see substantial progress More on student homelessness: What happens when there is no home for homework?
Speaking from experience
As co-founder of Simply Birthdays, a nonprofit that throws birthday parties for children living in homeless shelters, Salem-Keizer board member Sheronne Blasi sees the impact homelessness has on students on a regular basis.
“We kind of forget when students leave the schoolhouse,” she said, “we don’t always know their home life.”
Getting a good nights sleep, taking a shower, dressing in clean clothes, eating breakfast and dinner, having a safe, warm and quiet place to study and access to a computer, are all examples of things Blasi said people take for granted that can affect a student’s ability to focus and learn.
“Once you get behind … it is incredibly hard to catch up,” she said, adding that falling behind in core subjects like reading and math can increase a student’s risk of dropping out.
Young people who experience homelessness are about 87 percent more likely to stop going to school, according to the 2014 “Don’t Call Them Dropouts” report by Tufts University.
More than 1,160 students in Salem-Keizer Public Schools were considered homeless in 2016-17. But this is likely only part of the problem.
“The need is greater than the numbers we see,” Blasi said. “If our community knew … how to contribute, that (could really go) a long way.”
Fellow Salem-Keizer board member Jesse Lippold experienced being homeless firsthand when he was a Salem-Keizer student.
“You can’t focus,” he said. “You’re sitting in class and thinking about how hungry you are and where you’re going to stay that night.”
Lippold said he was so “focused on survival,” college wasn’t even on his mind. In fact, high school didn’t even seem possible.
“The moment a family took me in, when I was adopted, my grades shot back up to As and Bs,” he said.
Now in a position of influence, Lippold thinks it’s important to help these students so they have more opportunities in life.
Colt Gill, acting superintendent for the state, said many of these students have experienced some kind of trauma, like the death of a family member.
Many don’t have a trusted adult to go to, they are forced to transfer schools or they don’t have a place to do their homework, he said.
“It makes it really difficult to keep up with coursework,” he said.
Gill said the state is working with districts to implement more “trauma-informed” practices. These are research-based strategies for educators to better interact with students who have experienced trauma.
Trauma can include homelessness and abuse, among other things.
Looking forward, the department doesn’t know how the homeless student graduation rate will change, but Gill said they have a lot of hope with new programs underway.
Some of these programs include Measure 98-funded programs that increase student engagement through career technical courses and dropout prevention efforts, a statewide $7.4 million investment to address chronic absenteeism and the Tribal Attendance Pilot Projects to help increase attendance rates of Native American students.
Blasi added that individuals can help by mentoring students, donating food, clothing and shoes, and giving money for scholarships.
“These kinds of programs are just the beginning,” Gill said.
Read more: McKay student dies in shooting on Fisher Road NE | Oregon NAACP leaders say state did not fairly allocate funds for black students | Legislators tasked with fixing Oregon’s dismal graduation rate