The number in itself is staggering. It’s enough to pause thought, blocking the mind from moving to the next stage of trying to understand what it means or what to do.
In West Virginia, 10,522 students are homeless. That’s 4 percent of the entire student population enrolled in the state’s K-12 schools, or one kid out of every classroom with 25 students. The data comes from the West Virginia Department of Education and covers the 2018-19 school year.
Further examination shows Jefferson County, the wealthiest county in the state, has the most homeless school attendees, at 1,411, or 16 percent of the county’s student population. Next highest is Kanawha, at 652, which represents 3 percent of students. Clay County rounds out the top three, with 633 homeless students. That accounts for 34 percent of K-12 students there, because of the county’s comparatively lower population.
Moving past shock, to better understand the problem, it’s important to define what “homeless” actually means under federal guidelines that the state Education Department uses in tabulating these numbers.
It doesn’t mean, for instance, that 10,522 West Virginia kids are sleeping on park benches or on the street, although there are certainly some of those cases in the tabulation. Students may, indeed, be staying at a home, but it’s not their home and they might not have a bed. The numbers also reflect students sleeping on a couch at a family member’s house, residing in a shelter or living in a car or a camper. The count excludes students living in kinship care.
With widespread poverty, an opioid epidemic that leaves many children without parents, or parents who are incarcerated, and natural disasters like the 2016 flood that made homes in some parts of the state uninhabitable, it’s possible to see how student homelessness would be a problem. Even taking all of that into account, the numbers are still mind-blowing. And, according to officials who compile these statistics, it’s probably a conservative estimate, with the actual count reaching even higher.
Of course, the most important thing here is how this affects the children themselves, which is fairly predictable in the average case. Poverty or other averse circumstances lead to poorer living conditions. Poorer living conditions lead to poorer health (ranging from malnourishment or the lack to quality sleep to violence in a residence, drug activity, etc.), which then contributes to poor performance at school.
Homeless students also are more likely to switch school districts multiple times because of their fluctuating location. Imagine joining an entirely new school midyear and trying to keep up when you don’t even know where you’re going to sleep at night.
It’s clearly tragic, as is the fact that these numbers weren’t revealed in a more public fashion sooner. The West Virginia Legislature just spent most of a regular session and an entire special session debating education, pondering ideas like charter schools (eventually approved in a limited capacity) and diverting public school money for private educational savings accounts (which did not pass). In all that time, this topic was never addressed.
It was brushed upon in others ways, with teachers and others pointing to how poverty affects achievement gaps and the multiple, vital roles public school teachers have to fill, aside from teaching, because more and more children are not having those needs met at home. But the actual topic of homeless students and this particular number was never directly debated.
Was it because legislators weren’t aware of the issue? Perhaps. Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and was a strong proponent for bills leading toward privatization told a Gazette-Mail reporter she’d never heard the number. And she lives in the county with the most homeless students. Then again, Delegate John Doyle, a Democrat who also lives in Jefferson County and opposed the education overhaul efforts, had never heard them either.
Legislators in West Virginia are defined as part-time, so maybe they shouldn’t be expected to know every statistic. But it certainly seems that state agencies would want to get issues like this out there at some point, if major changes to education are the topic of discussion.
The education bill that passed will get more money to schools for additional psychologists and social workers, which is extremely important. But as Doyle himself said after hearing the numbers on homeless students, “We didn’t do enough.”
Rucker said legislation isn’t the answer to the problem, but added, “I cannot imagine how a student is going to get a good education if they don’t have a good home to go to and a safe place to go. I truly cannot picture how horrible.”
We’re having a hard time with it, too, Senator.