New tool helps school districts strategize support for students experiencing homelessness

Published: November 8, 2022

When students experiencing homelessness are supported in schools, that experience lays the groundwork for their academic and future success. However, for this to be possible, school staff themselves need to be adequately equipped with much-needed tools, funding, and partnerships to support students experiencing homelessness in their own districts. That is why Building Changes, in partnership with Clarus Research, has developed the Assessment & Building Capacity Tool (ABC Tool), a structured data sheet created specifically to support school district homeless liaisons. The goal of the ABC Tool is to assist homeless liaisons with forming strategies and to devise specific plans that will improve support for students experiencing homelessness in their communities.

Homeless liaisons are already significantly understaffed in the state of Washington. In 2019, the statewide auditor’s report showed that districts are only able to spend an average of 20 minutes with each homeless student per month. With so few homeless liaisons, many find themselves filling in different roles to support students in their districts and are often overloaded with responding to crisis instead. Emergency responses to address students’ crisis itself does little to address root causes of homelessness in the long run.

Photo of Joey Heilman

Joey Heilman

The ABC Tool helps homeless liaisons to step back and take stock of what is working and what needs improvement in existing processes and services to support students experiencing homelessness in their district. As a result, homeless liaisons can think more strategically about solutions to support students in their communities and make a bigger impact by implementing specific action plans.

“It provides space and time for intentional planning and reflection that can be really hard to get when you’re working in a school and you’re constantly responding to crises and trying to meet students’ needs,” explained Joey Heilman, education strategy specialist at Building Changes.

Building Changes’ education team, including Heilman, has been partnering with homeless liaisons in eight school districts for the past year to test out the ABC Tool. In her role, Heilman walks them through the tool, facilitates monthly check-ins, and provides support for liaisons so that they can move their ideas into implementation. She also uses the tool in conjunction with our Menu of Strategies, a working collection of recommendations compiled by Building Changes and informed by students and families experiencing homelessness, school districts, and community-based organizations statewide.

Our statewide perspective on student homelessness and our people-centered approach in our programmatic support work makes us a great strategic partner for school district staff who are on the ground and working directly with students in their communities.

“We go into our partnerships with school districts not believing we know what is right. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to working with communities,” says Heilman, describing Building Changes’ method of providing tailored technical assistance to our school and community partners. “We recognize the different needs in communities and help shepherd out knowledge from partners who have the local knowledge and experience that we don’t have,” she said.

Although Building Changes is still developing the ABC Tool, we are excited to already see promising results with our early adopters. Additionally, we have seen how powerful the ABC Tool can be when combined with technical assistance and flexible funding provided by our funders.

Maryan Abdow and Julie Herdt are early adopters of the ABC Tool and support students experiencing homelessness and foster care in Tukwila School District. On their most recent check-in with Heilman, they shared specific ways flexible funding was used to carry out their ABC Tool strategies.

One of the ways they prioritized their flexible funding was to support move-in costs for families. Herdt, who works with elementary school students experiencing homelessness in Tukwila, talked about how she used the tool and flexible funding to stably house more students and families. “It was just $567 that was preventing them from having permanent housing,” she recalls how she provided support for a Somali family who was experiencing homelessness. “We were able to directly work with the landlord and they were able to move in the next day,” she said.

Another strategy they decided to focus on was to use flexible funding to cover school costs, post-secondary school fees, and drivers’ education costs for students. “Meeting a students’ basic needs is tied to their academic success. Suppose you’re not able to provide them access to housing or food. It will affect their academic outcomes,” said Abdow who used the ABC Tool and flexible funding to prioritize helping an unaccompanied refugee student replace his driver’s license. “With flexible funding he can now access services, get back to work, and be self-sufficient. Now my student is able to focus on school and we’re looking to get his permanent resident card,” she said.

The successes we are seeing so far with Tukwila School District demonstrate what can happen when much-needed tools and resources are given to staff to think and act strategically about supporting students and families experiencing homelessness in their communities.

Building Changes will continue to improve on the ABC Tool with hopes to bring it to school districts statewide. For the ABC Tool to be the most effective, however, we need continued support from our funders so that we can increase our capacity to support more communities across the state.

“The ABC Tool and our tailored technical assistance are the perfect vessel to offer flexible funding with. Here is a framework and here are some resources to make that happen. And giving the school that autonomy to figure out what solutions look like for them actually end up making better system change,” Heilman said.

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