As a member of SCORE’s team this summer, I have learned a lot about the education issues that our nation faces and have dived into the very lively discussion between policy-makers, educators, parents, business leaders, and students themselves. What I have found, is that the term “at-risk” is thrown around a lot. It seems to me that the field of education is overflowing with risks at the moment, for every stakeholder involved. I read/hear statements like, “teachers are at risk of losing their jobs,” or, “our economy is at-risk of plummeting if we don’t improve the quality of our workforce” or, “our nation is at-risk of falling behind the rest of the world in educational achievement.” However, what I most often hear, and what we should be paying the most attention to, is the fact that our nation has a growing population of “at-risk youth.”

But what does this term “at-risk” mean when applied to youth? What is so risky about being a pre-teen or a teenager in 21st century America? This summer, through both my internships at SCORE and the Oasis Youth Opportunity Center, I have seen many of the faces that the phrase “at-risk youth” represents, including that of youth homelessness.

The severity of youth homelessness is greater than I ever imagined. According to the Indiana Department of Education, over 1.35 million children in the U.S. experience homelessness each year, and this number is growing. This is a big number, especially given the implications for student achievement. The Family Housing Fund has found that, “homeless children are more likely to SCORE poorly on math, reading, spelling, and vocabulary tests and are more likely to be held back a year in school.” Before the creation of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 50% of homeless children were also not attending school. We cannot afford these statistics to remain true.

What is even more alarming are the students these statistics don’t represent: The majority of students I see at the Oasis Emergency Shelter are either not covered under the federal definition of homelessness, or simply go undetected. They don’t fit the “chronically homeless” picture that is painted by these statistics or government assistance programs, but still live a life of constant mobility: from foster homes, to the state’s custody, to a shelter program like Oasis. According to The Urban Institute, when these youth are included, estimates for 12-17 year olds range from 1.6-1.7 million.  My time at Oasis has taught me that there is not one “face” to youth homelessness, and these unidentified youth are at the most critical risk of not having the opportunity to obtain a quality education and graduate from high school with the skills and academic toolset to succeed in college and/or our nation’s workforce.

Michael is a perfect example of an Oasis Emergency Youth Shelter resident in this category. Michael first came to Oasis last year after a gang episode that left him no other options but to either leave his neighborhood and school or become the victim of gang violence. He stayed at the shelter for three months during which he did not attend school because of the gang threats present at his old school and a lack of transportation to a school outside his community. While his father, who possessed custody, owned an apartment, which disqualified Michael from being identified as homeless, he still did not have a safe or stable place to go. He was therefore “at-risk” but not able to receive services to keep him in school through policies such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which identifies “homeless children and youth,” as, “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence,” and provides waived requirements to enroll, eligibility for free textbooks, and transportation support to one’s school of origin.

While the MV Act is a very important piece of legislation and attempts to cover as many “homeless” situations as possible, there are gaps we cannot ignore. Sometimes the gaps are found in the implementation stage, when school personnel misunderstand what constitutes homelessness, preventing youth from receiving necessary services. Many youth with unstable living arrangements hide from police or shelter programs for fear of being placed in the State’s custody or back in unsafe living environments. Others, like Michael, go undetected because they are not obviously or “chronically” homeless. Michael is just one example of a teen left out of the system.  If we are going to improve our high school graduation rates, our policies must be flexible enough to address the multifaceted issues preventing youth from accessing their right to a quality education and we must understand how to implement them effectively.

Many obstacles youth face to educational achievement, such as youth homelessness, are not themselves evident in the classroom, addressed by our government/ implementers, or included in statistics. We must be aware of the risks, and willing to face them head-on. While working to improve teacher effectiveness, curriculums, and school administration, we must simultaneously find ways to guarantee that youth can take full advantage of these improvements, despite the risks they face.

(Disclaimer: names have been replaced to ensure confidentiality)