Stanford University: At least 2,600 students in San Mateo County schools have experienced ‘housing instability,’ Stanford study finds

In San Mateo County, one of the wealthiest counties in California, about 2,600 students experienced housing instability between 2016 and 2019, making them up to six times more likely to be chronically absent from school and four times more likely not to graduate high school, according to a new report by the Stanford University Graduate School of Education John W. Gardner Center.

Drawing on their deep relationships with the county’s public school districts that goes back over 20 years, Stanford researchers obtained and combed through three years of records from nearly all of its 23 districts. Through in-depth interviews with district staff, they identified the key problems contributing to poor educational outcomes for homeless and housing unstable students, as well as possible solutions.

“This report provides a really sober look at our own community and shows how we have an opportunity now to make a difference because we have this understanding,” said Amy Gerstein, executive director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities.

Gerstein, along with Stanford research associate Jayme Pyne, analyzed pre-pandemic school data from 2016-17 through 2018-19 years. They also conducted subsequent interviews with key district staff during the pandemic, which gave them deeper insight and a district-level perspective about the unprecedented challenges of the past two years, they said.

The findings echo other studies of housing instability’s impact on students elsewhere, Pyne said. But the new report, published online on April 19, marks the first time that the scope and demographics of student homelessness and housing instability in San Mateo County, where the income gap is one of the starkest in the state, have been documented.

“Even though we’ve seen research reports from elsewhere in California, people can say, ‘Well, that’s L.A., not San Mateo County,’ ” Pyne said.

For local cities and organizations that are looking for ways to help local students, the report provides aggregated outcomes data that has been analyzed with housing instability as its focus. They can use that analysis, along with recommendations for how they can combine forces and how the county and state can provide support and uniform guidance, Gerstein said.

Improving the data
Access to good data has been a limiting factor for many who develop and implement social educational policies, said the researchers. Policymakers don’t have a clear picture of the unique challenges facing students who are experiencing housing instability. This limited understanding is a barrier to mounting an effective policy response and supporting academic success.

Following numerous interviews, Gerstein said she came to understand that the act of identifying homeless or housing unstable students and responding to their needs “was everyone’s job and no single person’s job,” she said. “We see this kind of pattern in other places and other ways, and it never leads to good outcomes for this incredibly vulnerable population.”

The report revealed sharp differences between students who were homeless and unstably housed (doubled up temporarily with friends or relatives, or in danger of being evicted) compared to students who had stable household income and housing.

For example, students living with housing instability are disproportionately Black, Latinx, and English language learners.

Homeless, or “unhoused,” students also miss more school days and do not complete high school at higher rates than stably housed students. They are also suspended from school two to five times more often, depending on grade level. Their chronic absenteeism has a cascading effect – the more school they miss, the more invisible they become, Gerstein said, because they miss out on instructional days and school community life, and they may not be present when state tests are conducted.

Gerstein and Pyne found that homeless and housing-unstable students are clustered in certain areas of San Mateo County. The largest clusters include Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto and San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.

There are also sharp income disparities across San Mateo County. Five elementary school districts serving 5,500 students reported no housing-unstable students, while another elementary school district serving 4,100 students reported 1,500 such students over the three-year period – the figures in both cases are very likely an underestimate.

Almost certainly students are being undercounted, the researchers concluded from their interviews. There could be several reasons for this, including perceived stigma around homelessness or fear of drawing attention to immigration-status households. Guidelines around record-keeping and determination of what is unstable housing can also vary between schools. A school’s record of their homeless students may also not be accurate because the time when a child becomes homeless and when the school gathers data may not overlap.

Moreover, COVID has likely made student housing instability and the undercount problem worse, district staff told researchers, as parents lost jobs and moved out of the area, or were forced to double up. In interviews, district personnel said they were “100 percent certain” that more students in this predicament were going uncounted, Gerstein said.

Recommendations
The researchers made several recommendations at the local, county, and state levels, involving not only school leaders but elected officials and youth-serving organizations. Pyne’s priority recommendation, for example, is to create uniform guidelines for collecting data about the housing situations of students. “If we could accurately identify the kids who are struggling with their dwelling status and how chronic that is through the year, and from year to year, it would give us a much richer sense of what’s going on for them,” Pyne said.

Gerstein noted that when some students encounter disciplinary issues at school, their behavior could be misattributed to other factors when the school doesn’t know their families may be struggling with housing and concomitant challenges like food security. So one of her top recommendations is to create coordinated and comprehensive support for families.

For these recommendations to be effective, however, wider awareness and coordination across sectors in communities will be needed. State policy can also provide guidance and a more uniform approach as well as funding support, the researchers concluded.

“Let’s make the invisible visible,” Gerstein said. “This is a call to action for communities and for the counties to support communities.”

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