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Hundreds of HISD students are homeless and COVID-19 is complicating matters. How the district is trying to help

HOUSTON – The start of a school year is full of excitement and challenges for students and teachers alike, even during a pandemic. The challenges can at times be overwhelming, especially if you’re a family dealing with homelessness.

The Houston Independent School District, like many large districts, is always looking for ways to help their homeless students and does so their Student Assistance Program.

“We’ve expanded our services from just focusing on the kids because in doing the work we realized that we have to stabilize the entire family. We can help you, we try to do a warm handoff, not just give a paper referral,” said Lisa Jackson, senior manager of the HISD Student Assistance Program.

The program’s primary goal is to identify at-risk students who are in foster care or in need of homeless assistance and provide them with various support strategies to enable, and empower them with the opportunity to graduate from high school.

Over the years, enrollment has fluctuated. It was highest in the 2017-18 school year, which was seen as a direct result of thousands of families displaced by Hurricane Harvey. This year, HISD estimates there are about 7,700 students currently enrolled in the Student Assistance Program, but COVID-19 is complicating matters.

“We love going out and working with families to determine... what their needs are, how we can assist them and we haven’t been able to do so,” Jackson said. “The biggest issue is that our population is unstable, so their phone may be disconnected and of course we’re not doing face to face visits right now.”

HISD said the schools with the highest number of students facing homelessness include:

Houston Independent School District schools with the highest number of homeless students.
Houston Independent School District schools with the highest number of homeless students. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

According to HISD, one of the biggest hurdles in helping homeless students is identifying them. Jackson said families are afraid of identifying themselves for various reasons including concern that Child Protective Services will get involved.

“Open up and ask for help or you’re not going to get the services that you need,” said Jackson.

A study on homeless students from 2012-13 to 2016-17 by the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University found jarring statistics. Homeless students were:

  • 18% more likely to drop out of school
  • Slightly more likely to pass the STAAR exam in reading and to a lesser extent, math. However, they were slightly less likely to take the exams
  • Unaccompanied students tended to have worse educational outcomes than students living in the physical custody of a parent/guardian
  • Students living in shelters were also particularly likely to drop out of school

“It’s so unfortunate, some of these students they deal with so much that you couldn’t even imagine. They don’t know where they’re going to eat, they might be acting as a parent to their siblings because mom may not be available for whatever reason and so you have a lot of students that are really taking on all these different roles while trying to be a kid and also trying to be a good student," said Ilka Rosado, a manger for the HISD student Assistance program.

The report’s findings make it clear there’s still a lot of work to be done but the difference this program is quite clear.

The HISD Student Assistance Program estimates the 2018-19 identified homeless student graduation rate at 88%. That’s versus the estimated district graduation rate of 91% that same year.

Any student or family looking to register for the program or fins available resources can visit the HISD website.