San Bernardino City School District Tops In Homeless Student Support

The San Bernardino City Unified School District was one of five California School Districts and a single charter school statewide that were surveyed to form the basis of an auditor’s conclusion that the number of homeless students in the state’s schools are being severely under-documented.
At the behest of the state legislature, California State Auditor Elaine Howle beginning last March undertook an audit of the performance of six local educational agencies relating to their efforts to identify and support youth attending school in their respective jurisdictions experiencing homelessness during the 2017-18 school year.
State senators and Assembly members on the Joint Committee on Legislative Audits felt such a review was in order order based on a quarter of the state’s school district’s claiming that none of the students enrolled at their schools qualified as homeless.
Under California law and the federal McKinney-Vento Act, schools are legally required to identity homeless students, provide a limited array of services to those students and report the data back to the state. The McKinney-Vento Act defines homeless children as ones living in vehicles, motels, shelters, campgrounds or those who are temporarily residentially doubled up due to financial hardship with another family, including extended family members. School districts are obliged to use the same definition. For that reason, the vast majority of the 25 percent of the state’s school districts’ assertions they had no homeless among their respective student bodies was not credible.
The audit, also referred to as a study, was aimed at determining how schools are obstructed from accurately identifying students experiencing homelessness, why those students’ status as homeless is going unreported, and how to identify and provide the services to best meet their needs.
Howle’s audit came to the conclusion that the state’s schools collectively under-counted their homeless students by no less than 37 percent in 2017-18, in so doing failing to provide them transportation, counseling, access to available social services and other benefits to which they are entitled under state and federal law.
According to the audit, school districts or individual schools within those districts reported 270,000 homeless children when a more accurate estimate of that number is roughly 100,000 higher, at around 370,000. In this way, of the state’s approximately 3.7 million school age children in families living below the poverty line, some ten percent of those are homeless by the applicable definition of that term, meaning their families do not have stable housing.
According to the audit, school districts that have fallen down in compiling accurate homeless numbers within their boundaries are missing out on available funding. In some cases, the number of homeless students within particular districts is being under-reported. In some other districts, it appears as if no effort to make a tally of homeless students was carried out at all.
Law dictates that schools survey families every year on their living conditions, and report the number of homeless students enrolled in their jurisdictions to the California Department of Education. California applies what is called the Local Control Funding Formula, by which districts or individual schools within those districts are augmented with funding to provide services for homeless students.
Statewide, school district officials identified fewer than 5 percent of their low-income students as homeless.
Howle’s audit was not exhaustive but rather focused on Greenfield Union School District in Monterey County, Gridley Unified in Butte County, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified in Los Angeles County, San Bernardino City Unified, as well as a single charter school, Birmingham Community Charter High School in Van Nuys.
According to the state auditors, none of the six educational service providers had adequately trained staff to identify homeless students and ensure their access to services. Two did not provide the required housing questionnaires to families, and five did not post information about services available to homeless families, as required by law.
Highlighted findings from the audit include a conclusion that “Available data suggest that California local educational agencies are not doing enough to identify youth experiencing homelessness. Homeless education experts generally estimate that 5 to 10 percent of economically disadvantaged youth experience homelessness. Four of the six local educational agencies we reviewed—five school districts and one charter school—identified 3 percent or fewer of their economically disadvantaged youth as experiencing homelessness. The six local educational agencies we reviewed could do more to identify and support youth experiencing homelessness. None of the six local educational agencies we reviewed sufficiently trained staff to ensure they were aware of information that would help them identify youth needing services. Only one local educational agency we reviewed has disseminated information about its homeless education program.”
The audit was likewise critical of the California Department of Education for not monitoring the overall situation and school districts more closely.
“[The Department of] Education is federally required to oversee the State’s homeless education program, but it has provided inadequate oversight and leadership,” according to the audit summary. “It monitors this program in less than 1 percent of the nearly 2,300 local educational agencies in the State each academic year. It does not effectively use the data it collects to identify and provide guidance to local educational agencies that may be under-reporting the number of youth experiencing homelessness. It has not conducted a staffing analysis to identify additional resources needed to provide adequate oversight of local educational agencies’ homeless education programs.”
California, the most populous state in the nation and one where in much of its expanse winter weather is far milder than in most other states, attracts more homeless than any other state in the nation, including homeless families. As such, California has consistently been host to the highest number of homeless children in the country, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Of the six local educational agencies examined in the survey, the San Bernardino City School District had the greatest saturation and largest number of homeless students.
While the San Bernardino City School District was lumped in with with the other school districts and the charter high school in terms of many of the audit’s negative findings, in fact, the San Bernardino City School District was yet found to be the agency that was most in compliance with the state and federal reporting requirements relating to homelessness.
For example, one section of the summary stated, “Although Birmingham Charter, Greenfield, and Gridley identified too few youth experiencing homelessness to make a meaningful comparison, the data from the other three local educational agencies support the reasoning that greater coordination generally yields better results. Specifically, Norwalk‑La Mirada works with other organizations to provide various services to families and youth experiencing homelessness; further, although San Bernardino could not always provide documentation, it claims that it also works with service organizations to provide services to these youth and their families. The data show that at these two local educational agencies, the youth experiencing homelessness had lower rates of absenteeism, suspension, and dropping out than statewide averages, whereas the youth experiencing homelessness at Vallejo, which told us that it generally does not coordinate with service organizations, consistently had higher rates of absenteeism, suspension, and dropping out compared to statewide averages.”
Furthermore, the first chapter of the audit stated that “youth experiencing homelessness in San Bernardino, the local educational agency with the largest student enrollment we visited, also performed better on some performance outcomes than the statewide average. During academic year 2017–18, 69 percent of youth experiencing homelessness statewide graduated from high school. That year, San Bernardino reported that nearly 80 percent of its youth experiencing homelessness graduated. Similarly, Norwalk‑La Mirada reported that 85 percent of its youth experiencing homelessness graduated. In contrast, Vallejo’s youth experiencing homelessness graduated at a rate of 40 percent.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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