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D.C. By The Numbers: Many Students Are Well-Schooled On Being Homeless

The number of homeless students attending D.C. schools has gone up over the last five years.
Karen Apricot: http://www.flickr.com/photos/karenapricot/292761884/
The number of homeless students attending D.C. schools has gone up over the last five years.

D.C. By The Numbers is a month-long series that will use numbers to highlight and explore exactly how D.C. does — and doesn't — work. Have a number to share? Get in touch.

Homelessness in D.C. has been front-page news this winter, as the city's shelters reached capacity and an increasing number of families were housed in hotel rooms and recreation centers during the coldest nights.

As homlessness grows, so do the number of displaced students enrolled in D.C.’s public schools.

According to a preliminary count by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), 4,043 homeless students currently attend D.C.'s traditional public and public charter schools. (There are 83,000 students in public and charter schools.) That's up from 3,766 in the 2012-13 school year and 2,947 in 2011-12, and part of a five-year trend that has seen the number of homeless students jump some 60 percent.

D.C. isn't alone — the number of homeless students in schools across the country has gone up also.

For homeless advocates, the number isn't surprising: Homelessness in general is up, they say, and the effects of the recession are still weighing on the city's poorest residents.

"The recession is still very much in force," says Jim Beck, an official with the Sasha Bruce Youthwork, an organization that works with homeless youth and families. He says that a shortage of affordable housing options in D.C. is also hitting more struggling families.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), during the 2011-12 school year, 75 percent of students that self-identified as being homeless said they "doubled up" with family, sharing a home with relatives or friends.

Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for D.C. Public Schools, says that families can identify themselves as homeless when they enroll their children. Every school has a homeless liaison that meets with homeless children to check on whether they need additional resources, and teachers and staff are trained to identify homeless students who may not have identified themselves.

OSSE doesn't address the causes driving the increases, but says that the higher counts may come from improvements in how the agency identifies homeless students and families.

"The homeless population is a very transient group, which may prove high in some years, and could decrease or increase over the next. We also believe that OSSE has significantly improved its outreach over the past year so that more students are being identified in not just the schools, but also through community and government organizations," says Ayan Islam, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Maggie Riden, the executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, agrees that D.C. residents are more likely to self-identify as homeless in order to get help. Still, she adds, having students declare themselves homeless can be an indicator of how difficult things have gotten.

"It's really a rock-bottom situation," she says.

That, says Jamila Larson of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, has an impact on educational achievement.

"It will be very difficult for our city to reach our educational goals when more and more of our children are distracted by homelessness and the reasons their families became homeless," she says.

NCHE says that test scores bear that out. In the 2009-10 school year, it says, 31 percent of homeless students in grades 3 to 8 ranked "proficient" or above on reading tests, compared to over 40 percent for all students.

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