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Eugene schools not reaching homeless students

Homeless students in Eugene have an abysmal graduation rate: Only 30% graduate from high school within four years. That is an absolutely unacceptable number that lags far below the state graduation rate for homeless students. Eugene school district officials should be ashamed.

This is especially distressing since, overall, graduation rates have gone up in Eugene and across Oregon. Eugene had the second-highest growth rate in the state overall, rising to 78%. Among homeless students, however, the rate graduation rate actually declined in Eugene.

Discussing the growth in the graduation rate at North Eugene, Charis McGaughy, 4J’s assistant superintendent for instruction, said, “We really feel we’re making progress in closing some of the opportunity and achievement gaps for some of our students. We’re really looking forward to the (new state funds) and the ability to make even deeper investments in narrowing the education gap.”

But homeless students are not seeing the same progress in closing opportunity and achievement gaps. Our community cannot afford to leave them behind. School leaders must develop solutions targeted to the special circumstances homeless students face.

We understand that homeless students are a challenging population for educators to reach. As state Department of Education Director Colt Gill said, “Just overcoming the day-to-day challenges of being homeless makes it really tough.”

It may be difficult for parents with steady jobs and decent homes to imagine what life is like for the children of parents struggling to find work and affordable housing. They might sleep in cars or, if they’re lucky, sleep on couches in relatives’ homes. Each day might be different. Every day uncertain.

These students, understandably, tend to have lower daily attendance rates and higher tardiness rates. They are more likely to come to school tired, hungry, stressed and distracted. In some cases, homeless students have experienced trauma — violence, abuse, hunger and other distressing events.

Despite these challenges, Eugene’s 30% graduation rate for homeless students cannot be excused. Homelessness is a growing problem in Eugene and across Oregon. It is becoming an emergency, and the school district needs to figure out how to respond to it just as other city and state agencies do.

The school district got a failing grade here, and it needs look at what it’s doing, figure out why it isn’t working and determine how to do better by its homeless students, who deserve a good education as much as anyone — and need it more than most.

Are teachers in the district properly trained to work with students who don’t have adequate shelter? Do school policies reflect the challenges of homelessness? Are there communication plans for dealing with parents who may not have phones or a fixed address?

Are disciplinary policies designed to uncover and address root problems of misbehavior and to encourage teachers to understand how barriers faced by many homeless students — lack of reliable transportation, the need to work, etc. — can contribute to tardiness, absenteeism and other issues?

Students facing chronic homelessness might have fallen behind academically years before high school and never received an opportunity to catch up.

Eugene should look at what other school districts across the state are doing — districts like Bethel and South Lane that brought their graduation rates up significantly. There are almost certainly lessons to be taken from those successes.

And the district should commit a significant portion of the new money it will receive from the Student Success Act — around $12 million to $13 million a year starting the next school year — to provide necessary resources to boost the graduation rate for homeless students.

This would fit into the goals of the act — meeting students’ mental or behavioral health needs and increasing academic achievement for historically underserved students.

For a homeless student, school should be a sanctuary and an anchor — possibly the one consistent experience in a life situation where uncertainty can be the only constant. School should be a safe shelter for them.

But it must also be a place where they learn, progress and, ultimately, graduate with their peers, as well prepared for life after school and whatever that may bring, as humanly possible.

Eugene is failing that mission. It must learn how to succeed.