I have only been to Dallas once, very briefly, on business. Still, I did get a sense of how large the city is. (Its estimated population in 2018, according to the United States Census Bureau, was 1.3 million.)
Apparently, though, that Texas city’s substantial population is, sadly, just less than the number of homeless students in the U.S.
That stunning statistic comes from CBS News, and is based on numbers in a report released in January by the National Center for Homeless Education. Findings in that report show that more than 1.5 million students experienced homelessness during the 2017-18 school year. That reflects an increase of 15% over the 2015-16 school year. It’s important to note that that figure does not reflect the total number of homeless students, because it only includes those enrolled in public schools or local education agencies, and doesn’t capture students who only experience homelessness during the summer or who have dropped out of school.
Sixteen states, according to the report, saw an increase in their identified homeless student populations of 10% or more and eight states experienced growth in the homeless student population of 20% or more.
This tragic situation impacts many pupil transporters. Although his district is not located in one of those states, I did learn from Michael Shields, the director of transportation and auxiliary services for Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Ore., that his transportation team is dealing with a significant spike in homeless students.
Salem-Keizer started the last two school years (2018-19 and 2019-20) with about 180 homeless students. At the end of the spring semester in 2019, they were transporting 511 of these students and are currently serving 476 of them.
Although the number of locations of pickups and drop-offs for homeless students and those in foster care has not changed significantly, the mileage has increased, Shields said.
“We have purchased nine vans since the spring of last year to meet the need,” he added.
And, as you likely have heard, the issue of homelessness here in Los Angeles is very prevalent. A 2019 count estimated close to 60,000 homeless people were living in Los Angeles County, according to the Los Angeles Times. Of those people, many are children. Austin Beutner, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District (USD), for example, identified about 25,000 homeless students in a December op-ed piece he wrote for the newspaper. (The district, he noted in the piece, serves about 700,000 students.)
In our February issue, we published a story on how alternative transportation services can be enlisted to help meet the needs of homeless students, special-needs students, and those in foster care. More recently, we reported news that could contain another solution to help these students and the district transportation departments that are working hard to help them, but that are already struggling with driver shortages and limited budgets.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has approved research on providing free transportation to all K-12 students. A report will include data on existing free transit services offered to students, and provide cost estimates and information on potential funding, students’ interest in transit, and transit dependency.
The issue of homeless students and families living in poverty came up at Metro’s Jan. 23 board of directors meeting in which the plan to research the program was approved. Los Angeles USD added in a news release about the meeting that 80% of its students live in poverty. Beutner told the transit agency’s board of directors that the ability to afford a bus pass could stand in the way of a student’s access to education.
He also wrote the following in his op-ed piece, which discussed the need for more funds to help schools support students dealing with homelessness (unfortunately, there is no mention of pupil transportation): “The promise of a great education is something we owe to every child. It’s a civil right and the best path out of poverty.”
So many in the pupil transportation industry are driven by these very beliefs. The big yellow bus is of course the safest method of student transportation, but in a time and place of such urgent need, some support from alternative and public transportation — in cases where it makes sense — could be an educational lifeline for some students.