V. Portrait of California’s K-12 Homeless Student Population: Identifying Patterns & Geographic Needs

In addition to conducting interviews and focus groups with key education stakeholders and students to inform this study, we developed an interactive map, to display statewide data for homeless students enrolled in California K-12 schools.[8] In the interactive map, we identified school suspension rates, chronic absenteeism[9] rates, graduation rates, and UC/CSU readiness rates as key indicators of student learning. Annual cumulative enrollment data for the 2018-2019 school year reveals that approximately 269,000 students experienced homelessness, making up 17.9% of all 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness in the nation (2019).[10]

The following analyses use the California Department of Education 2018-2019 data overlaid across the state’s 58 counties to demonstrate demographic patterns among students experiencing homelessness. By correlating data for students experiencing homelessness with non-homeless students, we were able to highlight recurring trends in educational outcomes. State, county, and district data were analyzed to create a detailed educational portrait of California’s K-12 homeless student population in relationship to various peer groups and geographies. Results from this analysis reveal two things: first, the number of students experiencing homelessness continues to rise, and second, adverse educational outcomes persist.

CDE data reveals that negative educational outcomes, including higher suspension rates (Figure 9), higher rates of chronic absenteeism (Figure 10), lower graduation rates (Figure 11) and lower CSU/UC readiness rates (Figure 12), are common among homeless students, regardless of ethnic/racial identity.

Figure 8. Student Educational Outcomes for California, 2018-2019*

[8] The homeless student data displayed for California and its 58 counties was compiled from DataQuest, the California Department of Education’s (CDE) web-based data reporting tool, for the 2018-2019 school year and is disaggregated by race and ethnicity.
[9] The CDE determines students to be chronically absent if they were eligible to be considered chronically absent at the selected level during the academic year and they were absent for 10% or more of the days they were expected to attend.
[10] The annual cumulative enrollment, discipline, and chronic absentee data are are submitted and certified by Local Education Agencies (LEAs) and charter schools as part of the annual End of Year 3 (EOY 3) submission in the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS).

*Data in the infographic were retrieved from multiple DataQuest reports. Enrollment numbers were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate under “Cumulative Enrollment”, California Department of Education, 2019d.
Suspension rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Suspension Rate, California Department of Education, 2019c.
Chronic absenteeism rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate, California Department of Education, 2019d.
Graduation data were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

Counties

Similar educational outcomes observed for students experiencing homelessness at the state level were observable at the county level. Our analysis of data from the six counties with the largest enrollment of students experiencing homelessness (which comprise 65% of all homeless students in California) reveals that students who experienced homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year were disproportionately suspended (Figure 9) and chronically absent (Figure 10) at high rates. They are also graduating at lower rates (Figure 11) and less likely to meet UC/CSU requirements (Figure 12) than their peers. While data for each of the 58 counties in California vary, we found similar patterns in nearly every county. There were five counties in which students experiencing homelessness displayed more favorable outcomes than students who did not experience homelessness. These exceptions were in Northern California counties with fewer than 200 students experiencing homelessness. For example, in Amador County, students experiencing homelessness displayed lower rates of suspensions, and in Inyo and Mono County, students experiencing homelessness had a 0% suspension rate. Another divergent finding is that Nevada County reported higher graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness, while only 9% of this group met UC/CSU requirements upon graduation. This data and data for all 58 counties in California can be further explored using our interactive map.

Table 9. California Counties with the Largest Number of Homeless Students, Homeless Data Snapshot, 2018-2019

Note. Data on this table were retrieved from multiple DataQuest reports. Enrollment numbers were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate under “Cumulative Enrollment”, California Department of Education, 2019d.
Suspension rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Suspension Rate, California Department of Education, 2019c.
Chronic absenteeism rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate, California Department of Education, 2019d.
Graduation data were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

Latinx students make up the majority of homeless student enrollment in most counties with large numbers of students experiencing homelessness. In Orange County, 83% of students experiencing homelessness were Latinx (Table 10).

Table 10. Ethnic Composition of California Counties with the Largest Number of Homeless Students, Homeless data Snapshot, 2018-2019

Note. Enrollment numbers were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate under “Cumulative Enrollment”, California Department of Education, 2019d.

Of the six counties with the highest number of students experiencing homelessness, Los Angeles reported the lowest suspension rate of 3.8%. This could be related to the counties movement away from punitive suspension models. In Sacramento county, students experiencing homelessness received suspensions at a rate of 11.9% (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Suspension Rates by County, 2018-2019

Note. Suspension rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Suspension Rate, California Department of Education, 2019c.

In 2018-2019, 25% of all students experiencing homelessness in California were chronically absent compared to 12% of non-homeless students (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Chronic Absenteeism Rates by County, 2018-2019

Note. Chronic absenteeism rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate, California Department of Education, 2019d.

Of the counties with the highest counts of homeless students, those experiencing homelessness in San Diego were the least likely student group to graduate and had graduation rates that were the most divergent from their peers (Figure 11).

Figure 11. Four-Year Cohort Graduation Rates by County, 2018-2019

Note. Graduation rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

Of the California counties with the largest number of homeless students, San Diego, Sacramento and Orange County had the greatest disparities in the percentage of students meeting UC/CSU requirements (Figure 12).

Figure 12. Four-Year Cohort UC/CSU Requirements Met by County, 2018-2019

Note. UC/CSU Requirements Met data were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

School Districts

Districts with the largest populations of students experiencing homelessness, as well as selected districts with high proportions of students experiencing homelessness, are identified in this section. According to district data submitted to the CDE, the ten districts with the highest cumulative enrollment of students experiencing homelessness comprise 25% of all homeless students in California (269,269). Nearly 25% of the students enrolled at Santa Maria-Bonita and Rowland Unified experienced homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year. At Norwalk-La Mirada Unified, 30% of students experienced homelessness. Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in California, reported that 18,979 students experienced homelessness during the academic year (Table 11).

District enrollment rates for students experiencing homelessness reveals where students are located. For example, roughly 40% of San Diego County’s students experiencing homelessness are located in San Diego Unified. Additionally, within San Diego Unified, approximately 8,000 students or 6% of the student population were identified as having experienced homelessness during the 2018-2019 school year (Table 11).

Table 11. Percent of Students Experiencing Homelessness Enrolled at Selected Districts with High Numbers/Proportions of Homeless Students in California, 2018-2019

*Paradise Unified data was heavily affected by Butte County’s 2018 Camp Fire.
Note. Enrollment numbers were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate under “Cumulative Enrollment”, California Department of Education, 2019d.

During the 2018-2019 school year, students experiencing homelessness had higher rates of chronic absence than their peers in the highlighted districts. Students experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles Unified were chronically absent at a rate of 36%, 18% higher than students who did not experience homelessness (Table 12).

Table 12. Chronic Absenteeism Rates for Selected Districts with High Numbers/Proportions of Homeless Students Enrolled in California, 2018-2019

*Paradise Unified data was heavily affected by Butte County’s 2018 Camp Fire.
Note. Chronic absenteeism rates were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Chronic Absenteeism Rate, California Department of Education, 2019d.

During the 2018-2019 school year, only 66% of students experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles Unified graduated in four years. From the school districts we examined, Norwalk-La Mirada, Moreno Valley, and North Monterey County Unified reported higher graduation rates than the state for students experiencing homelessness (Table 13).

Table 13. Graduation Rate for Selected Districts with High Numbers/Proportions of Homeless Students Enrolled in California, 2018-2019

*Paradise Unified data was heavily affected by Butte County’s 2018 Camp Fire.
Note. UC/CSU Requirements Met data were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

For the 2018-2019 school year, students experiencing homelessness had significantly lower rates of UC/CSU readiness rates (Table 14). Graduating seniors at Long Beach Unified and San Diego Unified had a 24% gap in UC/CSU readiness compared to their peers. Smaller gaps can be seen in Moreno Valley Unified where students experiencing homelessness graduated at 40%, only 2% lower than their non-homeless peers.

Table 14. UC/CSU Requirements Met for Selected Districts with High Numbers/Proportions of Homeless Students Enrolled in California, 2018-2019

Note. UC/CSU Requirements Met data were retrieved from DataQuest 2018-19 Four-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate, California Department of Education, 2019e.

Summary

Striking educational differences among students experiencing homelessness are prevalent across race and geography. This consistent underperformance calls for policymakers at all levels of government to consider these factors when prioritizing the distribution of resources.

Examination of educational performance (graduation, college readiness) and school climate indicators (e.g., chronic absenteeism, suspensions) for students experiencing homelessness across the state reveals that students of every racial and ethnic group are struggling academically compared to their non-homeless peers. Black, American Indian, and White students experiencing homelessness have a 19% higher rate in chronic absence rates compared to students who did not experience homelessness (Figure 4). When comparing student graduation rates, a 14% gap exists for Black students and a 19% gap for White students experiencing homelessness (Figure 5). There is an 18% gap in college readiness for Black students experiencing homelessness, and a 31% gap for White students experiencing homelessness statewide (Figure 6).

Of the counties serving the highest proportion of students experiencing homelessness, Sacramento County (25%) and San Diego County (18%) have the most pronounced differences in chronic absenteeism rates. San Diego County students experiencing homelessness (25%) and Sacramento County (22%) have the lowest graduation rates compared to their peers in other counties. Sacramento County (30%), San Diego County (25%), and Orange County (26%) have the largest gaps in college readiness rates between students experiencing homelessness and their peers.

Paradise Unified School District (75.7%) and North Monterey County Unified School District (35%) serve a higher proportion of students experiencing homelessness than any other districts in the state (Table 11). The devastation caused by the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County can begin to explain Paradise Unified District’s high rates of homelessness, as many families are still unhoused as a direct result of the fire. Los Angeles Unified School District (18%) and San Diego Unified School District (18%) have the most significant gaps in chronic absence between students experiencing homelessness and their peers (Table 12). Graduation rates (Table 13) are comparatively lower for Los Angeles Unified School District (16%) and San Diego Unified School District (14%) among students experiencing homelessness, and college readiness rates (Table 14) for students experiencing homelessness in Long Beach Unified (24%) and San Diego Unified School District (24%).

Future Research & Considerations

Findings from this study largely mirror those of Piazza & Hyatt (2019a) who surveyed over 692 representatives of K-12 school districts, including 547 McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons, reflecting responses from 35% of all K-12 liaisons across California. The authors of that study identified similar patterns around challenges related to identifying students for services, inadequate capacity to support a growing number of students experiencing homelessness and a desire for more dedicated resources.

The conclusions for this study were informed by focus groups and interviews with over 155 key stakeholders (see Appendix A: Research Methods), many of whom support the academic success of students experiencing homelessness, including a small sample of county McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons and their counterparts school districts. Future research consideration for philanthropic, private, corporate, state and federal partners are identified below:

  1. Limited research currently exists that documents evidence-based strategies for educators and practitioners, including homeless liaisons who devote their work to eliminating educational barriers for students experiencing homelessness. The Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA plans to build upon some of the key findings from this report to begin documenting promising models from early education to higher education that can help strengthen schoolwide, campus and community practices for students experiencing homelessness. Many of these approaches will take into consideration how education, housing and child welfare agencies are working in coordination and how districts are leveraging multiple funding sources, including the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to accelerate educational success for students experiencing homelessness.
  2. Homelessness impacts Latinx (70%) and Black (9%) students disproportionately and the intersection of poor educational outcomes and homelessness present within schools cannot be overlooked (Moore et al., 2019). There is a need for more research that documents practices and policies that deliberately focus on changing the educational trajectory of students of color experiencing homelessness. California Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) provides a framework for rethinking universal and targeted supports for altering historic patterns of education inequality. However, MTSS is a strategy that hasn’t been explored through research as a means to improve academic outcomes for students experiencing homelessness.
  3. There is a need for future scholarship that explores the impact of the McKinney-Vento Act on state educational outcomes for students experiencing homelessness. We determined that the federal McKinney-Vento Act is not reaching 2 out of 3 California experiencing homelessness due to limited federal investments, suggesting the importance of future research that explores policies that prioritize the success of students experiencing homelessness.
  4. Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) for all 1,037 districts, 58 county offices of education and 1,306 charter schools present another opportunity for further analysis to learn more about the types of strategies, interventions and use of resources to promote the educational success of students experiencing homelessness. While the Center for the Transformation of Schools research team did not review LCAPs for this study, we see value in future research that discerns patterns in the strategic use of Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) resources and how they align to charter, district and county equity schools.

We are hopeful future research from the Center and scholars across the country will continue to shape policy priorities for local, state and federal policymakers and practices for educators committed to supporting students experiencing homelessness. The next section of this report begins to identify policy levers worthy of consideration for lawmakers at all level of government based on our report findings.