One Washington School District Helped Homeless Students Graduate. Can Others?

Homeless students at North Thurston Public Schools are graduating at nearly the same rates as their peers

MJ Dizon, 18, is photographed at North Thurston Public Schools’ Family & Youth Resource Center in Olympia. Dizon became homeless during his senior year of high school but with the help of North Thurston Public Schools’ student navigator program was able to get an apartment and graduate. He is now a student at Western Washington University. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

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In April of his senior year at Timberline High School, 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 redirect 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.

The longer a person remains homeless, the more difficult obtaining stable housing becomes. If a homeless student becomes a chronically homeless adult, they more often require not only housing but also services for mental health, physical health, and substance abuse treatment.

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.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is collaborating with the Center for Public Integrity to examine how homeless students are faring in Washington and across the U.S. This series will also include a look at school discipline rates for Washington’s 40,000 homeless students, as well as federal funding disparities among states.

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. Now, they just need the money to scale it up.

Our mantra is “remove 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.”

Forty percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, 68% of whom cite family rejection as a major reason they become homeless, according to the Raikes Foundation.

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.

How North Thurston’s student navigator program began

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.

But the law and the accompanying federal funding don’t provide the level of support homeless students need, education officials and advocates say. 

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.

Many have duties beyond even that. Sometimes, the McKinney-Vento liaison is also a principal or the district’s superintendent. Nearly 60% of McKinney-Vento liaisons statewide said they have less than four hours a week to serve homeless students, according to a 2022 report by the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Washington state passed several laws in the last decade 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.

Could any district do it?

North Thurston’s student navigator program is “what the McKinney-Vento Act at its heart was designed to do but with the resources to actually do it,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a national advocacy nonprofit for homeless students.

But the funding is precarious and limited.

Two student navigator positions may expire soon as money from the American Rescue Plan runs out.

“That’s a little bit challenging to know what’s going to happen next,” Van Leishout said.

And not every district in the state could marshal as much ongoing funding as North Thurston.

Both federal and state funding for homeless student programs are competitive — not every district applies and not every district that applies wins. 

Washington received in 2019 about $1.5 million of McKinney-Vento grant funding to distribute to districts, and the state’s Homeless Student Stability education Program provides $876,000 per year.

Less than 15% of school districts in the state receive federal McKinney-Vento grant funding and less than 6% of districts receive the state Homeless Student Stability education Program grant.

“That by no means is going to come even close to meeting the need that we have given the number of students that are experiencing homelessness,” said Vivian Rogers-Decker, the state’s Homeless Student Stability education Program supervisor.

Washington does better than most states at identifying and tracking its homeless students, but an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows that the lack of funding is likely causing many to fall through the cracks with more than 300,000 homeless students nationally, and at least 2,000 statewide, who are likely unidentified and not receiving support promised to them by law.

Rogers-Decker says North Thurston’s model of providing one-on-one support to homeless students is a best practice that should be emulated in districts around the state, but more funding is needed.

Seattle Public Schools, the largest district in the state, with more than twice the number of homeless students as North Thurston, gets the same amount of McKinney-Vento grant funding and none from the state’s Homeless Student Stability education Program. 

Whereas each student navigator in North Thurston provides individualized support for about 65 high school students, in Seattle, each full-time staff member dedicated to supporting homeless students serves more than 200 across the district.

“Do I think there’s enough resources? Absolutely not,” said Jeanea Proctor-Mills, Seattle Public Schools’ McKinney-Vento liaison. 

Like most districts in the state and nation, Seattle’s 64% graduation rate for its homeless students lags behind its overall graduation rate of 87%.

Personalized attention leads to graduation

Lorin Griffitts, one of North Thurston’s student navigators and a former homelessness services provider, said she does what she hopes “a really good mom would do.” 

She scrutinizes her students’ attendance and grades and notices when they start falling off. She meets with students regularly, some every day, in her office in the high school. She provides them whatever they need. Sometimes that’s a sleeping bag, other times it’s just a listening ear. 

Student navigators say they need to support students’ participation in sports and extracurriculars if they expect them to maintain an interest in school amid what is often turmoil outside of it.

For Dizon, that was theater. He looks the part with long black hair, wearing plaid pants, a pearl necklace and wire-rim glasses. He produced, wrote and directed his first play his senior year and knew he wanted to keep at it.

“I’m really passionate about writing,” Dizon said. 

So when Dizon couldn’t afford a school trip to a Shakespeare festival after he became homeless, his navigator, Goddard found funds to pay for it. 

Students also need to see a path for themselves after school, one worth graduating for, navigators say.

Dizon had little time to think about that last spring. His priority at the time was finding a place to live, so when Dizon received his acceptance letter to college, he was overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork he needed to complete.

Goddard spent hours with him filling out forms for financial aid and submitting enrollment papers, in addition to making sure he had a roof over his head until school started. 

Oftentimes, Goddard is her students’ only support.

“A lot of the things that the kids deal with are super overwhelming. And so I think that knowing somebody cares about them is huge,” Goddard said. “And I do really care about my students.”

Dizon is now a freshman at Western Washington University, hoping to graduate with a degree in theater.

“I call her Miss. G. Like, you know, my aunt,” Dizon said. “I wouldn’t have been so comfortable sitting here in my dorm room if it wasn’t for her help.” 

School district or homelessness system?

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, Jessica Llamas, who is able to reach Spanish-speaking families by allowing them to “kind of put their guard down.” 

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.

This originally appeared at The Seattle Times and is published here in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange.

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