• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Friday 08th November, 2013

Homeless students: how the lack of a stable home adds to the risks of poverty

strong>In one large urban school district, almost one in seven students has no stable place to call home at some point between third and eighth grade. A new analysis of more than 26,000 students from the Minneapolis, Minnesota public schools shows that these children do worse in school, on average, than those from very poor families who have a stable place to live. And yet some show remarkable resilience, for reasons that are hard to explain.It is clear that homelessness and high residential mobility among low-income families present a serious threat to children’s learning and achievement. And the risks faced by homeless and highly mobile (HHM) students – including high levels of family adversity, emotional, and health problems – are more severe than the risks of poverty alone. A new study examined if HHM status was a risk factor for poor math and reading achievement over time. Data on the academic achievements of 26,474 children in grades three through eight (approximately ages 8-14) from the Minneapolis Public Schools were examined across a five-year period. Children were classified as HHM if they lived on the street, in a vehicle, in a motel, in an abandoned building, or with relatives because they could not afford housing of their own. Their math and reading test scores were compared to those of children who qualify for federal free meals, those who receive reduced-price meals, and those who receive neither. This allowed the researchers to examine achievement beyond just poverty alone.HHM and academic achievementSome 75% of children were classed in one of the three low-income groups (HHM, free meals, or reduced-price meals) and 13.8% were HHM at some point during the five-year analysis.The researchers found that children who were HHM had the lowest test scores of any of the groups, and that the growth in their scores was weak compared to the other groups of children.Although the HHM children missed more school than other children, their lower test scores were not completely explained by their lower attendance rates. Nor was the HHM risk related to other well-known risk factors for poor academic achievement including ethnicity, gender, and special education needs. But is the risk acute or chronic? In other words, do children do worse during or immediately after the time they are homeless or insecurely housed, but then catch up with their peers later – or is the risk persistent?This study found evidence of both. Evidence of acute risk was found in both reading and math, where students showed lower levels of achievement in the year following periods were they were classified as HHM. Growth in ability in math was also shown to slow down during this time. It may be that growth in math achievement in the elementary school and early teen years is more easily disrupted by an unstable period in a child’s home life because math learning requires the child to use different skills and constantly learn new ideas. Reading skills, on the other hand, are usually acquired in earlier years and improve gradually through practice, so the “acute” risk to reading skills may be lower than the risk to math learning.Evidence of chronic risk came from the fact that the average test scores of children who had been HHM at any time were persistently lower than those of the other groups. Moreover, the gap in test scores between HHM children and other children widened across time. The researchers concluded that homelessness or high residential mobility was a high chronic risk factor for low academic achievement in school.HHM and resilienceOf course, not all homeless and highly mobile students are the same. The researchers point out that 45% of the HHM children demonstrate what they call “academic resilience”: these children’s test scores were consistently at or above the 16th percentile of test scores nationally. While this is not high compared to the average for all students, it is above expectations for the HHM students. A minority of HHM students even scored above the national average on math or reading in some years. Crucially, we don’t know why some HHM students were more resilient academically than others. The differences were not explained by differences in attendance, qualifying for special services, or ethnicity. As the authors say, “the most influential protective factors and assets that might promote academic resilience in disadvantaged children are not among those routinely measured by school districts.” Protective factors that promote resilience could range from parenting to individual motivation to classroom relationships. Overall, while students who are homeless or highly mobile are at extreme risk of poor school achievement, some children identified as being extremely high risk can go on to have successful and rewarding school careers. Perhaps future research will help us understand how these differences happen.******************ReferenceCutuli, J. J., Herbers, J.E., Desjardins, C. D., Long, J.D., Heistad, D., Chan, C-K., Hinz, E., & Masten, A. (2012). Academic Achievement Trajectories of Homeless and Highly Mobile Students: Resilience in the Context of Chronic and Acute Risk. Child Development. DOI: 10.1111 / cdev.12013

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