Study of Minneapolis homeless students reveals academic problems — and offers hope

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A new, long-term study of Minneapolis school children demonstrates that homelessness and the stresses of moving from place to place several times a year means their learning suffers.

They have chronically lower math and reading skills than other low-income students in more stabile living situations.

Yet the research being published online Tuesday, Oct. 30, in the journal Child Development not only substantiates these children’s academic problems but also offers hope.

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In the study, most pupils showed persistent, negative learning effects as they neared high school. But nearly 45 percent of them overcame adverse effects of instability and scored in the average or above average range in reading and math.

“Our goal is to understand how these children succeed even in the midst of this risk and how to promote learning in spite of mobility,’’ explains University of Minnesota professor Ann Masten, a national expert on the study of resilience and the impact of homelessness on children and co-author of the report.

“Discovering why some children are more resilient than others is key to helping all children,” she says. “Ideally we’d like to prevent homelessness, but we’re not doing very well.”

High numbers of homeless students

Dealing with the life and learning challenges of homeless and highly mobile children is an issue gaining increasing attention, not only because Minnesota’s future rests in the hands of the next generation, but also because of shocking numbers. Homeless children are disproportionately minority and the academic achievement gap is related to minority status as well.

In Minneapolis public schools alone last school year, 8.9 percent of total enrollment, or 3,636 students, were identified as homeless or highly mobile, meaning they had moved three or more times during the year.

That boils down to an average of more than 1,800 homeless children a day coming into those Minneapolis classrooms, according to school officials.

The current study, a collaboration between the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development and the Minneapolis Public Schools, involves 26,000 students in grades three through eight from fall 2005 to 2009.

Math learning for these children suffered more than reading, according to the study’s lead researcher, J.J. Cutuli, a former University of Minnesota doctoral student now a research director at the University of Pennsylvania.

Unique study

The study is unique among such studies because it spans six years of data and because Minneapolis schools used the same test, adjusted for grade level, over that time, so researchers were able to compare apples to apples.

Rather than a surprise, the study findings were a “disheartening confirmation” of what teachers in classrooms often see, says Elizabeth Hinz, the Minneapolis School District’s liaison to these students and their families.

Yet Hinz, like Masten, stresses the importance of the significant number of these children who bounce back from the undertow issues in their lives.

“There is this enormous, amazing variability,’’ among kids, something about some of them that keeps them “amazingly hopeful” every day and forms the foundation for their academic success, she says.

The school district already has in place a network of support systems for these children and is setting up a user-friendly “integrated student information system” that includes more detailed information on students so teachers can better understand each student’s learning issues, Hinz says.

Data from the study will be used not only for teacher workshops but also to inform interested community groups about the breadth of the problem, she says.

A side note: McKinney Vento, a federal law, insures the rights of homeless and highly mobile students at school districts around the nation including Minneapolis, and includes the option of children staying at their “home school’’ in the same classroom with school districts providing transportation.