Homeless and Highly Mobile Students in San Francisco

A Q&A with Jacob Leos-Urbel

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) partnered with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and their Communities to conduct research. The aim of this partnership was to help SFUSD better track, understand, and support their homeless and highly mobile student population. Jacob Leos-Urbel, Associate Director of the Gardner Center, weighs in on the results of this shared work.


You set out to describe the homeless and highly mobile (HHM) student population in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). What did you find?

Student and family homelessness is a policy issue nationwide. It is a major concern in San Francisco and the Bay Area more broadly, where both housing costs and income inequality continue to grow.

About 4% of the SFUSD student population is considered homeless each year, representing about 2,500 students.

Importantly, federal legislation sets the definition of homelessness for students. It encompasses students with unstable housing, specifically those lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. Among SFUSD students identified as homeless, the most common living situation is sharing housing with other people or families, essentially being “doubled up” in a circumstance that is intended to be temporary. This is the case for about 60% of SFUSD’s homeless population. The remaining 40% of homeless students live in temporary shelters or motels, with a very small proportion (about 1%) reporting that they are without any kind of shelter.

We found real inequality in who is homeless. Many homeless students appear to remain homeless for years. Latino and Black students are overrepresented in the homeless student population, at about double their rate in the overall district student population. This means, for example, that although Latino students make up a little more than a quarter of all SFUSD students they account for more than half of the district’s homeless population. Another alarming finding was that when we followed students in the district data for three years in a row, we found that most of the students who were ever identified as homeless remained homeless for all three years. This finding suggests that homelessness is not a temporary status but something more long-term or chronic.

I do feel the need to point out that there are all kinds of reasons that students and families may not identify themselves as homeless. Sometimes that information may not flow from families to schools to the district, so keep that in mind when interpreting our findings. The real number of students experiencing unstable housing could be considerably higher …

Can you tell us more about the educational experiences and outcomes among HHM students? How are they faring in school?

Sure. HHM students may be at educational risk for multiple reasons including the stress associated with housing mobility and inadequate living conditions as well as those related to poverty in general.

In our analysis we often compared homeless students to the population of students eligible for free lunch. We aimed to give a sense of the implications of homelessness or housing instability, above and beyond economic disadvantage. Broadly speaking, homeless students are on average experiencing greater educational challenges than other district students who are economically disadvantaged but not identified as homeless.

Maybe not surprisingly, we found that homeless students change schools more and attend school less on average than other students eligible for free lunch. Importantly, looking at this kind of quantitative data doesn’t explain the reasons behind what we are seeing. Here’s an example. The federal legislation requires that homeless students be allowed to stay in their original school and receive transportation there if they choose to. However, we don’t know if homeless families are changing schools at higher rates because that is what they prefer, or if they’re not aware that they don’t have to.

Related, we found that homeless students are more than twice as likely to be chronically absent (at or below 90% attendance rate) compared to free lunch students (25% versus 11%). We also found that homeless students are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than free lunch students (4.4% versus 1.7%), which I think warrants further investigation.

In terms of academic achievement, homeless students are more likely to experience lower GPA, standardized test scores, A-G completion (the courses needed for admittance to UC schools), and high school graduation rates, compared to free lunch students. We also conducted multi-level regression analyses which also show that being homeless is associated with lower ELA and math scores, even when controlling for students’ prior achievement.

What assets promote resilience among HHM students?

Although homeless students face educational challenges and have lower outcomes on average, some homeless students are highly engaged in school and achieve academically.

For example, three-quarters of HHM students have an attendance rate of 90% or above with the majority attending school at least 95% of the time. Similarly the majority of HHM students have a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and about one-third have a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

So clearly, many are thriving despite the obstacles in their way.

To better understand what assets promote resilience, we analyzed data capturing students’ self-reported social and emotional learning skills. We find that students’ self-management skills (for example, things like the ability to regulate one’s emotions and behaviors, and to manage stress, set and work towards a goal) and growth mindset (the belief that ability is not fixed but rather can grow with effort) were positively associated with their ELA and math achievement. Again, this is the case even when controlling for students’ demographics, attendance, and their prior achievement.

What next steps can this RPP take to use this information to improve conditions for HHM students?

Great question. Well, realistically this partnership won’t be able to affect housing prices or inequality more broadly in the Bay Area. Our hope is that this research can help inform SFUSD’s district and school-level strategies for supporting HHM students. This issue certainly has the attention of district leaders. In fact, the school board is working on finalizing a new policy related to supporting homeless students.

I think that our findings related to higher rates of school mobility, absence, and suspensions for homeless students may point to areas of focus related to district policies and barriers to enrollment and attendance. Also, our finding that social and emotional learning capabilities relate to greater academic success for homeless students is important. Specifically, self-management skills and growth mindset appear to be protective factors for homeless students. This suggests the benefit of targeting these skills to promote positive school outcomes for this vulnerable population. In addition, we find that homeless students are largely concentrated in a sub-set of SFUSD schools, and that in some of these schools HHM students appear to be faring better than in others when it comes to attendance rates. I think there is a lot to be learned about school site practices that could shed light on key strategies for supporting and engaging homeless students.

Can you say more about the partnership behind this important work?

This project was a real collaboration between the Gardner Center, our colleagues at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and with San Francisco Unified School District. Professor Jelena Obradovic was the principal investigator for the project. In addition to her leadership and methodological expertise, Jelena is a national expert on executive function and resilience among children, especially for students experiencing homelessness. Our team also included two GSE doctoral students, Sarah Bardack and Jenna Finch. At the Gardner Center, Hadar Baharav led the analysis and Maureen Carew was crucial in facilitating our engagement with the district. We worked closely with our SFUSD partners in in the Department of Student, Family, and Community Support: Mary Richards and Nicole Magtoto. Laura Wentworth and California Education Partners provided support through the Stanford/SFUSD Incentive Fund.

Jacob Leos-Urbel joined the Gardner Center as Associate Director in 2014. Previously, he was an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Claremont Graduate University, where he taught courses in child and youth policy, policy evaluation, and quantitative research methods. Dr. Leos-Urbel’s work focuses broadly on education and child and youth policy, with an emphasis on programs and policies that aim to promote children’s education and development while operating outside of the traditional school classroom.