Making Classrooms Count: Working with Schools to Quantify Homeless Youth

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Photograph of a young woman on the street.

In the federal strategy to end youth homelessness by 2020, better understanding the scope of the program is a key step. Last year, nine communities set out to count young people experiencing homelessness at a given time as part of YouthCount!, a pilot program launched by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Administration for Children & Families.

Among the observations of an Urban Institute report on the program was the need for those counting homeless youth to collaborate more and better with local schools.

Absolutely true, says Melanie Wilson, director of research at Youth Catalytics, a Charlotte, VT, nonprofit providing training and research to strengthen child and youth services. Wilson helped create and administer a questionnaire to identify students in need of stable housing at three New England schools. Working with schools can be challenging, she says, but it's key to finding those homeless youth who have not dropped out.

“A school is where you have the most youth at one time in one place,” she says. “That’s where you can get the critical mass.“

A Lesson in Collaboration

Before service providers reach out to schools about counting homeless young people, they should be clear on what data they want to collect and how. Another key step, Wilson says, is figuring out how decisions are made at each school. Principals working in smaller systems may be able to sign off on decisions on their own. Administrators in larger districts may have to defer to superintendents or school boards.

Wilson adds that it’s important for service providers to discuss with school administrators issues like confidentiality, how information can be stored and shared, and whether the school wants to go through a formal approval process with an Institutional Review Board.

“You want to cultivate positive relationships where you view each other as collaborators,” Wilson says.

To get a school district on board with a count, enlist persuasive staff from community organizations already partnering with--and trusted by--the schools, says Julie Ratekin, homeless youth projects coordinator at Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, in Wyandotte, MI. A district's McKinney-Vento liaison, a position mandated by federal law to support homeless students, could also be an ally in explaining to a school board or administrator the nature of youth homelessness and the need for a count of homeless youth.

Ratekin advises agencies to keep their audience in mind when explaining the benefits of a youth count. Principals may respond to the argument that identifying how many youth are homeless will help schools better educate students by connecting them quickly to services. McKinney-Vento liaisons may enjoy meeting another knowledgeable advocate who can help them make the case about the scope of student homelessness in their district.

More Ideas for Counting Homeless Youth at School

Here are some additional tips for agencies hoping to partner with schools on counting homeless youth.

  • Make it easy. Youth Catalytics staff handled administrative tasks like making copies of their questionnaires and distributing them in staff mailboxes, along with preparing scripts for teachers.
  • Be part of the community. Ratekin says she meets with McKinney-Vento liaisons several times a year, and also volunteers for school committees and projects.
  • Pick a time and location that will capture the most students. Not all students take the same classes, so Youth Catalytics asked schools to hand out the questionnaire during homeroom.
  • Help connect the dots between youth counts and long-term goals. Family and youth workers can help schools understand the connection between improved data and increased funding for community services and support.
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