Questions on How to Support Homeless Students? Guidance Here

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires new protections for homeless students to go into effect this school year, and the U.S. Department of Education recently released guidance to help states and districts comply. Secretary King held a press call last week to answer questions about the new requirements; read the answers below.

The Every Student Succeeds Act will provide new protections for homeless students this year and new accountability measures for schools, districts and states next year, when schools will be required to publicly report graduation rates for homeless students for the first time. 

The U.S. Department of Education has released three documents to help schools and districts follow these new requirements: a homeless student guidance, a homeless student guidance fact sheet, and a homeless student notice of rights and protections.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education John King and Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), answered questions from reporters about the new guidance. Read a summary of some of their questions, along with King and Duffield’s answers, below.

Does the ESSA guidance provide new requirements for states and districts to follow or is the law going to support existing initiatives?

The short answer: both.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed nearly 30 years ago, already requires states and districts to provide state coordinators and homeless liaisons to support homeless students. Now there will be additional funding and support, as well as new responsibilities for these key education personnel.

“This is really an evolution of an existing set of requirements with new protections in place for students,” King said.

Here’s a brief overview of other new guidance requirements:

  • More capacity and training for school district liaisons and state coordinators. ESSA requires states to provide professional development to liaisons and that liaisons participate; one-third of liaisons have reported that they are the only person within their school district who receives training to help identify and intervene with homeless youth and families.

    Coordinators and liaisons should also be able to focus more of their time on homelessness, because the new law requires that they be able to sufficiently carry out their duties; 89 percent of liaisons have said they spend just half of their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons.
  • Better coordination of services. Schools will have to collaborate with additional agencies—like domestic violence and public housing agencies —to better support homeless students. In a recent report on student homelessness, Hidden In Plain Sight, 29 percent of liaisons and coordinators cited a lack of coordination between agencies as a major challenge to supporting homeless students.
  • Removal of enrollment barriers. Schools also have to remove enrollment barriers such as proof of residency, immunization and health records, and documentation of credit transfer. Both liaisons and youth who have experienced homelessness said in Hidden In Plain Sight that these requirements make re-enrolling a major challenge.
  • Better support for preschool-aged children. Under the new guidance, schools must now also identify preschool-aged homeless children and ensure that they have access to programs and services for which they are eligible. These services include school-administered preschool programs and the Early Intervention Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities.
For more on the experiences of homeless students, check out the new report Hidden in Plain Sight: Homeless Students in America's Public Schools, authored by Civic Enterprises, along with Hart Associates, as part of the GradNation campaign to raise high school graduation rates to 90 percent by 2020.


ESSA also focuses on supporting other vulnerable subgroups of students, like students with disabilities. Does this help homeless students?


Foster youth and students leaving the juvenile justice system are particularly at risk of becoming homeless. King said that changes to help these students will benefit homeless students as well.

“There is significant overlap,” King said. “Ultimately, the task for states and districts is to figure out how to leverage their new flexibility under ESSA in ways that advance equity and excellence for all student populations, including homeless students.”

King added that focusing on students who are chronically absent could help identify and support more homeless students, since homeless students are more likely to fall into that category.

“The key,” Duffield said, “is to understand that for any student to benefit from the protections in ESSA…, they have to be identified, they have to be in school,” Duffield said.

Why Students Need Support Even After They Secure Housing

Duffield also noted how important it is to support homeless students—with transportation and other services—even after they’ve secured permanent housing.  

President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act on December 10, 2015. Need more information on how the law impacts homeless students? NAEHCY offers a number of ESSA resources and tools. Access them here.

“While the effects of homelessness are great while children are experiencing it, there are aftereffects. There are aftershocks,” Duffield said.

“Many students hold it together while they can, and then when they get into housing, that’s when it falls apart. That’s when they allow themselves to reel from what was happening to them while they were in survival mode.”

Beth McCullough, a homeless liaison in Michigan, said she’s seen this happen firsthand. She spoke of one student who managed to secure housing but still didn’t have the support he needed to graduate. 

“The trauma of a year of homelessness hit him like a rock after [he and his family] became housed,” she explained. “He was finally safe enough to feel again, and his emotional state after he became housed was worse than when he was homeless—and that is when the school withdrew transportation.”

After that, he ended up dropping out.

“The new law and the guidance make the spirit of the McKinney-Vento into law,” McCullough said. “It is important that this is now law.”

This article is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English-language learners, students of color and students with disabilities.