Opinion/Solutions: How this school district is helping homeless students graduate

Credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times

Could dedicated and consistent support help reverse an alarming trend?

What you should know

  • Homeless students graduate high school at a much lower rate than other students. That’s because many drop out of school to focus on paying jobs.
  • New research shows there’s a steep price to pay for not having a high school diploma. It is considered the greatest single risk factor for experiencing homelessness after school.
  • A new program in Washington State hopes to change that. It relies on “student navigators,” to help homeless students.
  • The program is working – and it could provide a blueprint for other districts across the country.

In April of his senior year, after years of conflict at home, Mikel Jake “MJ” Dizon became homeless.

He was a few months from graduation but considered dropping out of school to focus on his job as a Starbucks barista to make money for rent. This decision could’ve redirected the course of Dizon’s life.

Only 59% of homeless students in Washington state graduate in four years compared to 83% of all students. A similar disparity exists nationally as well.

This has a snowball effect. Not having a high school degree is the greatest single risk factor for experiencing homelessness after school, according to the Chapin Hall research institute at the University of Chicago.

But at North Thurston Public Schools, the 661 students like Dizon, who are sleeping on friends’ couches, in vehicles, in shelters or in tents – with or without their families – are graduating at nearly the same rates as their peers.

The district has shown that this feat just requires dedicated and consistent support.

Beginning six years ago, North Thurston hired staff, called “student navigators,” whose sole function is to attend to each homeless student’s needs, whether that’s housing or food, feeling like they belong at school, or planning for the future beyond graduation.

It has worked.

North Thurston’s graduation rates for homeless students rose from 65% in 2017 to 84% in 2020 and 81% in 2021 — within 7 percentage points of the district’s overall graduation rate.

State education officials say that North Thurston has provided a blueprint to limiting the impact that homelessness has on the rest of a student’s life.

Removing ‘all barriers’

Since Dizon’s family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in 2015, he said he’s been forced to leave his home three times due to conflicts with his parents, at times because he didn’t feel safe there.

“I came out of the closet to my parents, and my father wasn’t so accepting,” Dizon said. “They didn’t want to be my parents anymore. And I wasn’t their son.”

Dizon wasn’t able to sleep at night his senior year when he realized he would become homeless. He had trouble waking up in time to attend drama, his favorite class. Soon, he was failing a class and drowning in all the tasks he needed to complete.

His boyfriend’s mom, a teacher at the district, told him a student navigator could help him.

Dizon connected with Gina Goddard, the student navigator at Timberline High School, who invited him into her office and spent hours on the phone with him to sign up for food stamps and helped connect him with a foundation that provided him money for rent.

“If you are worried about whether or not you’re going to be able to eat or where you’re going to sleep, it is very, very hard to concentrate on your Spanish test,” said Leslie Van Leishout, who helped create North Thurston’s student navigator program in an effort to “remove all barriers” for homeless students.

That support pulled Dizon above water.

Trying new ideas

The amount of time student navigators have to spend with their homeless students is what sets North Thurston apart from many other districts.

Before North Thurston had a student navigator in each high school, the district had a single homeless student liaison who was in charge of supporting about 900 homeless students and a similar number of foster care children.

Every school district in the nation is mandated to have a liaison under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law passed in 1987 to ensure that students experiencing homelessness “have access to the same free, appropriate public education” as other children.

Much of the North Thurston liaison’s time, Van Leishout said, was spent on paperwork and meetings rather than one-on-one support for homeless students.

In the last decade, Washington state passed several laws to strengthen the McKinney-Vento Act, one requiring every individual school in the state to designate a staff member as a point of contact for homeless students.

But that had the same problem of adding duties onto already burdened staff, usually counselors.

Van Leishout wanted to try something new in North Thurston.

Formerly a teacher in the district for almost 20 years, and director of student support for seven years, she had the superintendent’s trust to try new ideas, and she could write the grant applications to support them.

She repurposed federal McKinney-Vento Act funding the district was using primarily for tutoring homeless students to pay for one student navigator.

It worked instantly.

In the first full year of the program, the district’s graduation rates for homeless students rose 7 percentage points.

The next year, Van Leishout applied for a Washington State-specific grant to help homeless students, which paid for another student navigator. Then, with the pandemic, came funding from the federal government that enabled Van Leishout to add two more student navigators.

For three straight years since the program began, the graduation rate rose.

A community’s generosity

In many ways, North Thurston has created a homelessness response system within its school district where student navigators act like case managers.

The district even repurposed an unused building into a space where homeless and low-income students and families can do their laundry and pick up food, household items, clothes and school supplies. Community organizations meet families there to offer housing, health services and help obtaining public benefits.

That’s possible largely due to the community’s generosity. All the food, clothes, and supplies are donated by individuals or local businesses. The district also received more than $150,000 last year in cash donations for homeless students.

That generosity has also been cultivated by student navigators who have built relationships with the community. For example, the North Thurston Education Foundation, which provided Dizon rent money when he became homeless, has increased its giving to the district more than threefold since the student navigator program began.

Last year, the district built on its success by adding a bilingual student navigator. North Thurston is hoping to add a student navigator in its middle schools, and eventually its elementary schools.

That is, if it can find the money.

About the Solutions Journalism Network

This story is republished through our partner, the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.