Brought to you by SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.

The Data-to-Action Playbook: What It Is, and How to Use It
This playbook was created to advance the goals of Education Leads Home campaign, a national initiative to improve educational outcomes for children and youth experiencing homelessness. The campaign:

  • seeks to raise awareness of key challenges faced by children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness, and the systems that serve them; and
  • aspires to increase implementation of practices and policies that improve educational outcomes, from early childhood through postsecondary.

Goals of the Campaign

  • Early Childhood: By 2026, young children experiencing homelessness will participate in quality early childhood programs at the same rate as their housed peers.
  • Graduation: A 90% high school graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness by 2030.
  • Postsecondary: A 60% postsecondary attainment rate for students experiencing homelessness by 2034.
These goals are ambitious, but attainable. It is our hope that this playbook furthers local and state efforts to support students experiencing homelessness, which, in turn, will contribute to meeting the goals of the campaign.  To assemble this playbook, we conducted interviews with three state-wide organizations engaged in trailblazing research-to-action work on homelessness and education: Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, the Education Trust – New York (Ed Trust—NY), and Building Changes in the State of Washington. These organizations have creatively and successfully used data to achieve concrete improvements in the provision of educational services for children and youth experiencing homelessness. Their insights are reflected throughout this playbook. We also reviewed recent reports on student homelessness from state and local organizations, to show a range of approaches to analyzing and using student homelessness data to drive policy and practice.
How to Use the Data-to-Action Playbook
The goal of the Data-to-Action Playbook is to provide a simple “how to” resource for organizations interested in leveraging local and state education data to better serve and advocate for students experiencing homelessness. Whether you are a novice or an experienced analyst and advocate, we hope this compilation of best practices will further your efforts. This playbook is meant to be a resource to help you think both about the questions that you need to answer to help students who are homeless in your community and the questions that you can answer with the data that you have available. Because every community, organization, and effort is different, we are not presenting a one-size-fits-all solution to be mechanically followed, but rather the concepts, tools, and processes that can support the development of each user’s unique efforts—whether state or local homeless education professionals or advocates, housing advocates, or community activists. The playbook provides both general and technical best practices for how education data can be used to advocate for students who are homeless in your community.
Provides key concepts, along with examples of how data has been successfully used by a variety of stakeholders across the U.S. to raise awareness and improve a variety of supports for students experiencing homelessness.
Provides detailed instructions for how to obtain data, links, and descriptions of the types of information that each data source can provide and how that information can be used.
Data & Inequities
Data is an important tool for understanding inequities and building equitable solutions. For example:

  • Black high school students are 2.5 times more likely to experience homelessness than their white peers, Hispanic students are twice as likely, and American Indian/Alaskan Native students are 1.7 times as likely. [1]
  • Students who identify as LGBQ are more than twice as likely, and transgender students are 9 times more likely, to experience homelessness. [2]
  • High school students who become pregnant are 10 times more likely to experience homelessness, and students staying in shelters are 20 times more likely than their housed peers to become pregnant. [3]

Using these data to actively address inequities is imperative. As a first step, consider these questions:

  • Does your district, institution, or state collect and disaggregate student homelessness data by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity?
  • If yes, what do those data show about the experience and outcomes of students who experience homelessness in your district or school? 
  • What additional data related to student homelessness and race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity do you need? For example, are high school graduation rates disaggregated by homelessness and race and ethnicity? 
  • How will you share this data, and with whom?

A Note about COVID-19 and Student Homelessness Data

The pandemic has disrupted all aspects of our education system, including data collection and reporting. Because of the limitations of virtual learning, school districts have struggled to identify students experiencing homelessness. In a 2020 national survey and analysis, SchoolHouse Connection and Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan estimated approximately 420,000 students experiencing homelessness were unidentified and unenrolled at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. The economic hardships associated with the pandemic have undoubtedly forced more families and youth into homelessness, but we do not yet know the full impact. The data used throughout this Playbook represents the most accurate pre-pandemic information available, and provides important pre-pandemic baselines from which to assess the impact of the pandemic on students experiencing homelessness. To this end, the U.S. Department of Education will collect data on students experiencing homelessness through required reporting through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and through the American Rescue Plan Act.  In light of the disproportionate impact of homelessness on academic outcomes, and of the over-representation of students of color, students with disabilities, and English learners among students experiencing homelessness, it will be imperative to include disaggregated data on students experiencing homelessness in all future analyses of the impact of the pandemic. In the meantime, schools and communities must use every means to identify, enroll, and support students experiencing homelessness so that they do not fall further behind, and obtain the education that remains their best hope of avoiding poverty and homelessness as adults.
Section 1: Key Concepts and Lessons from the Field
If you would like to support your advocacy with data, the first step in your efforts is to identify the data to which you have access in your state.  Identifying available data also can help in diagnosing systemic problems in the educational programs serving children and youth experiencing homelessness. Sometimes, lack of data itself is a problem, but such gaps can be identified only if you start by exploring the data that is available.  A useful tool for walking yourself through this process is the data self-assessment document from SchoolHouse Connection. This provides a starting place for thinking about the types of data and data sources that are available to you in your state. It can spark a conversation about where there are opportunities to use data as a catalyst for change. Filling out this self-assessment document will help you to identify connections and think about the group or issue that you want to focus on. Finally, this document provides links to publicly available data.

Statewide Initiative - Building Changes (Washington)

Learn how Building Changes in Washington State seeks to advance more equitable responses to homelessness through an interdisciplinary approach to systemic change that combines collaboration, innovation, evaluation, and advocacy.
Once you know that the data is available and you have decided on your focus age group, the next step is to determine and/or refine your overall goal. Having an idea of the big picture ensures that your team has a target. As one of our interviewees recommended, “Take time to map out what is needed to accomplish your goals and what each organization’s role is in accomplishing that. Also identify potential gaps in skills and areas of expertise.” This helps ensure that you set yourself up for success by having the right people and skill sets necessary to execute goals. Clear goals also can prevent mission or scope creep—the tendency of advocacy efforts to expand and lose focus. To help maintain focus and prevent scope creep, one of our interviewees recommends using the S.M.A.R.T.E. acronym to write your goals. S.M.A.R.T.E. stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound, and equitable, and these are qualities of good, actionable goals. As you work through this process, questions you may want to ask yourself are:

  • Why is this work important?
  • Who are the individuals and groups I am trying to serve?
  • What am I trying to accomplish through the data I am presenting?

Gather Appropriate Data

Before diving into the data collection process, be clear on the questions you want to answer and determine which data sources will help you get the information you need. Our interviewees provided the following tips for the data collection process:

  • Data analysis does not need to be complicated to have an impact. Often, it is the most basic information—like knowing the percentage of students who are homeless by school district—that has the largest impact. 
  • The more levels/geographies to which you can make the data relevant, the more people you will be able to engage/organize. People care about information that is local to them; this is particularly true when thinking about getting media attention.  
  • If you identify potentially useful data that you may not be able to obtain, consider alternative data sources that you may be able to use to convey your points. For example, if you can show the percentage of students who are homeless by district, but you do not have local proficiency rates for English or Math, you can point to national data on English and Math proficiency rates of students who are experiencing homelessness. Making this type of connection helps people understand the educational impact of homelessness and why it is an important local issue. 

Statewide Initiative - Poverty Solutions (Michigan)

Poverty Solutions is a university-wide presidential initiative at the University of Michigan that partners with communities and policymakers to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty through action-based research. Their data analysis and research about students experiencing homelessness addresses identification, graduation and dropout rates, early childhood homelessness, and school discipline.

Often, the data that you would really like to have is not available. But that does not mean the data that is available is insufficient. Never limit yourself by waiting for the data you wish you had; focus on recognizing the potential of what is already available. 
When you don’t have the data you want, use the data you have. Even if you do not have information or numbers directly related to your population of interest, you can often use the numbers you do have to illustrate student needs. Our interviewee at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions noted that “in Michigan, we knew very young children experiencing homelessness were not accessing early childhood programs. The problem was that we did not have any data on the prevalence of homelessness for 0-4 year olds. Without that, it was really hard to get people to engage in dialogue around the gap in services. The data that we did have was the number of kindergarten and first graders who were homeless in the State. Since it is widely agreed that very young children are at the greatest risk of homelessness, we made a conservative estimate of the number of 0-4 year olds homeless using our State’s K-12 data for kindergarten and first graders. This estimate helped to quantify the access gap to early childhood programs for children who were homeless, which could then become part of the State’s policy conversation. We then shared these numbers with both advocacy groups and our statewide McKinney-Vento coordinator who had been trying to bring attention to this issue internally for a long time. The data was not perfect, but it filled the gap at the time and helped to move the conversation forward.”  Think about the data that you do have and how it can be used to push forward conversations that are already happening in your state. Even if your data is not perfect, it may be good enough.
Leveraging public data Publicly-available data can be a great place to start, especially if you lack funding. 

  • Starting with public data can help you build a case that the issues you are raising merit closer attention.
    • By identifying gaps in the data, you may be able to attract funding for further research.
  • When possible, use indicators and methods that have been proven to be reliable.
    • This will enable you to connect your findings to other work and build on what has already been demonstrated elsewhere, rather than having to start from scratch.
Identify and understand data deficiencies Interviewees offered a number of other suggestions for identifying and addressing potential deficiencies in available data, including:

  • Ask yourself which questions can and cannot be answered with the available information.
  • Who is not included in the data and why? Are there potential issues of under- or over-counting? How would these issues potentially impact your findings?
  • This is also the time to ensure your approach is comprehensive. For example, when looking at long-term impact, be sure to look at metrics other than graduation rates, such as highest degree attained.

Statewide Initiative - Indiana Youth Institute & School on Wheels (Indiana)

In 2020, the Indiana Youth Institute and School on Wheels partnered to publish Improving Outcomes for Students Experiencing Homelessness in Indiana. Learn what the report revealed.
When presenting numbers and outcomes that represent student experiences, think about how you can make the data comprehensible  and compelling for your audience(s). To do that, you and your organization must first effectively engage with the data yourselves. We will talk more in-depth about messaging in a later chapter. Here are a few questions to consider before diving into the data analysis and presentation processes:

  • What data is easy for you to process based on your team’s skill set?
  • What outcomes and comparison groups will be most useful in demonstrating your significant points?
  • Whose assistance do you need to facilitate your analysis of the data?
  • How accustomed is your team to storytelling?
Complement quantitative with qualitative data
Link the data to narratives about the lived experience of students and families. Data by itself seldom sparks change. This sentiment was one of the recurring themes among interviewees: it is imperative to present both quantitative and qualitative data, because neither is entirely effective alone. Additionally, throughout the data collection, analysis, and presentation process, involving students and families who have lived experiences is an important element of equitable storytelling.
Meaningful comparison groups are critical to the story
To increase transparency and audience confidence, use disaggregated data and actual counts when possible (first and foremost preserving student privacy). Raw numbers, however, are not enough; try to include overall ranges of outcomes, as well as percentages. This makes it easy for your audience to think about comparisons, which will increase engagement with the information you are sharing. Where are students who are homeless doing better? Where are they doing worse? Understanding and highlighting what is going right is just as important as emphasizing what is not going well. 

It is also often fruitful to compare data for students who are economically disadvantaged [4] to data for students who are experiencing homelessness. This type of comparison can help people understand that homelessness has an impact over and above that of poverty alone. When possible, it is also essential to include demographic information—in particular, information about race and ethnicity —because students of color are disproportionately impacted by homelessness.

Addressing the issue of underidentification
When presenting data involving students experiencing homelessness, it is important to consider and present contextual information that may affect the reliability of the data. For example, the quality of the data concerning the prevalence of homelessness among students in public schools is significantly affected by the quality of the identification process. In evaluating such issues, consider:

  • What type of training takes place for the school personnel who identify students experiencing homelessness and what do the identification processes look like?
  • What kind of work has or has not been going on to improve identification in your school district or state?
  • What steps have been taken to address the reluctance of children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness to self-identify?
  • No matter what training or processes are in place, it is important to acknowledge that school-based numbers are probably missing a lot of children and youth who are homeless.

In light of these considerations, be candid about the limitations of the data. Keep in mind, however, that it is possible to learn from imperfect data.

Data without comparison lacks direction
Providing meaningful comparisons for your data is a critical part of mobilizing people towards action. However, not all data is easily comparable. One way of addressing this is to “normalize” your data using a common denominator.  For example, you can look at the number of students who are homeless by school district divided by the number of students in each school district who are economically disadvantaged. This will give you percentages that facilitate comparisons across school districts in a way that accounts for the number of students in poverty, and it can be particularly useful for highlighting under-identification of homeless students. “If you only see 3% of economically disadvantaged students identified as homeless in one district and 13% in another district, it is worth digging further,” noted one interviewee. “You have to ask yourself, does this make sense? Is there a plausible reason why fewer economically disadvantaged students in one area are homeless—such as lower cost of housing—or is there not really an explanation that makes sense? If there is no reasonable explanation, it is worth looking into identification practices in the district.”  This type of analysis is very simple, but the comparison can be a useful tool for McKinney-Vento coordinators and local and state advocates to help school districts understand that students experiencing homelessness are being under-identified in their district. 
Data that is engaging often invites diverse interpretations and responses
Different audiences will reach different conclusions about the importance, interpretation, and ramifications of data. You therefore need to think about what your audience will care about and what drives them to act.  One interviewee suggested using the “what, so what, now what?” structure to decide what data and what comparisons will be most meaningful for different audiences. 

  • What does the data show? (What?)
  • Why should someone care? (So what?) Be sure to think about what your intended audience cares about. What are their priorities? What comparison groups will most clearly show how and why the experience of homeless students matters in the context of the audience’s priorities. If you cannot come up with a compelling reason in your own mind for why someone should care about the data, it is not useful data. 
  • Given the data, what systems are not working the way they should? (Now what?) What actions can be taken to address the issue? What are your programmatic and/or policy recommendations? When deciding on your recommendations, be sure to consider whether the people to whom you are targeting the presentation can make the  changes that you are advocating.

The more that you can target your data and presentation to your audience, the more engaging it will be and the more it will invite interpretation and action.

Statewide Initiative - Research for Action (Pennsylvania)

Learn how Research for Action (RFA), a Philadelphia-based, nonprofit education research organization, is committed to conducting education research that explores the complexities of education reform initiatives in Philadelphia.
Your team and collaborative work with other organizations are essential to making your goals become a reality. Homelessness is an issue that intersects with multiple systems, which makes working with other organizations a critical element of success.  Partnerships are a source of strength. When thinking about potential partners, identify strategies and/or campaigns that are going well and try to work with the people behind those efforts. Establishing successful partnerships capable of effectively moving forward advocacy work can be challenging, but can be the difference between success and failure.

  • Identify a local school district as a partner.
  • If you are unable to communicate a message publicly, partner with a person or an organization that can.

Communication with your team members and with collaborators is crucial. Discuss progress, challenges, and successes, and create opportunities for communication to ensure that relationships are mutually beneficial. Finally, remember that self-care is different for everyone, and may look different for the different people with whom you are working. In order to continue supporting students, practitioners must also take care of themselves and their teammates. 

Diversity in data skills and cross-sector knowledge maximize success
Diverse collaborators can significantly contribute to success. As one of our interviewees emphasized, “People often connect with those who are like-minded or similarly structured, and that’s easy—basically finding who your close allies are. Far more difficult is finding the people you NEED to be partnering with that you’re not currently connected to.”  Individuals who have experience in different support areas, whether direct service or data analysis, will be valuable in providing holistic perspectives when approaching the data process. Additionally, ensuring that your partners include individuals or organizations that understand the housing and education systems will facilitate the creation of comprehensive action plans. When you identify missing skills or knowledge, that is the time to recruit partners who can fill such gaps.  If you are a data person, one tangible way to build partnerships is to talk with McKinney-Vento State Coordinators, local liaisons, and homeless service providers and to specifically ask what information or data they need in order to more effectively do their work. Getting that on-the-ground perspective is crucial in ensuring that data efforts will be useful.  One of the interviewees also noted that nonprofits are rarely composed of staff who have lived experiences of homelessness. In working with people experiencing homelessness, he recommended using a “with mindset,” rather than a “to” or “on behalf of” mindset. Think about what you as an individual and organization bring to the partnership, and be cautious about speaking as an “authority.” Focus on identifying where you, personally and organizationally, add value. Think about ways you can help the communities with which you are working, and work in a space of co-creation.
Look for potential partners already doing this work
In looking for collaborative opportunities, begin with a broad conception of the overall goals. As one of the interviewees stated, “In any state, there are organizations focused on bettering student outcomes—those are your partners. Think about the funnel effect: you’ll catch the most number of people at the highest level because you’ll get anyone who’s interested in education. As you funnel down, that’s where you’ll have fewer and fewer partners. If you’re just focusing on your entire agenda and who aligns with it, of course there’s not going to be many people for you to work with. Bring your perspective and agenda (like serving a specific student population) to the bigger table, because it might be something others care about, but are not actively thinking about.”  In short, cast your net wide when looking for partners. There is a wide breadth and depth of knowledge and resources available. Having an idea of the areas where you need support will help you identify the specialized knowledge you might obtain. When considering potential partners, however, one of the interviewees cautions, “It is critical to have role clarity. So often people align on values and objectives, but very rarely do you see a discussion around skills and what partners do well.”
Advocacy efforts don’t have to be siloed
As one of the interviewees explained, “Many organizations and people working in homelessness tend to go at it alone. … Just because the government is sectioned and siloed within programmatic elements doesn’t mean the advocacy has to be that way.” The silo effect is exacerbated by the different definitions of homelessness used by various government agencies. It is going to take a collaborative approach between the nonprofit, private, government, and philanthropic sectors to comprehensively address the challenges associated with homelessness. Keep this in mind as you consider the representation you need on your team and in your network.
Set up communication systems, reflection time, and feedback loops
Often, data efforts are long and drawn out processes, so it is critical to build in sufficient time for all of the steps of the data collection, analysis, and presentation processes, including the sharing of data within your partnerships. Make sure you are having conversations with all stakeholders (those making decisions, implementers, and students/families). One of the interviewees recommends putting together a coalition of people who want to advise on the whole data analysis/feedback process if possible.

Statewide Initiative - The Learning Policy Institute & UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools (California)

The Learning Policy Institute is a California-based organization that conducts and communicates high-quality research to improve education policy and practice, and The UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools is dedicated to bringing about systems change through humanizing research, validating practices, and transforming policies with key stakeholders to support equitable educational outcomes for historically underserved students. Learn how they are making a difference.
Good messaging is a critical element of all successful advocacy campaigns and encompasses not only the statements that your organization puts out, but how you choose to display and share your data. Because homelessness is such an intersectional issue, it also means helping your audience think about homelessness as more than just a housing issue. Homelessness impacts health, education, and early childhood development, among many other things. Educational deficits and health problems also impact the likelihood of homelessness. In messaging around child and youth homelessness, therefore, it is essential that you help diverse stakeholders in your community understand why homelessness is an issue that they need to care about and how it relates  to their constituents, clients, or issue of focus. The good news is that there is readily-available data to support this message.
To whom should you reach out? If your team has limited capacity for outreach, try the following “Power Mapping” Exercise:

  • Articulate your goal(s) and what each entails.
  • Identify who has the decision-making power relating to your goal.
  • Look at the level of support you need and what you might need to do to reach supporters.
  • Map out specific names of key supporters and subordinate decision-makers, and then figure out who influences those individuals and where those influencers stand on your issues. If possible, find individuals and organizations who will be easy to connect with—this can help you hone in on where to begin your partnerships.
Connect analysis to distinct, actionable policy solutions In making the case that your issue(s) require attention, be sure to  incorporate concrete ways that people can take action. As you plan, you may want to ask yourself:

  • At what level does policy need to change? School, district, state, national – all of the above?
  • What component(s) of the policy need(s) to change?
  • How will the change benefit students?

First, identify what needs to change, and then identify the information that will persuade people to act. Then make sure to suggest concrete policy changes/actions to address the problem.

Reaching different stakeholders One of the interviewees offered specific strategies for persuading different stakeholder groups: 

  • Policymakers value testimonials and constituent perspectives, but in the context of quantitative information. What are the numbers, the outcomes, the trends? 
  • Policymakers need help understanding the meaning of the data. That’s where the testimonials come in—students and families are the best messengers to give life to these numbers. 
  • For policymakers and people in the business world, brevity is also key; otherwise, what you’re communicating may not even be consumed. 
  • In the philanthropy sector, individuals tend to respond to objectively measurable metrics and outcomes. 
  • Media tend to be responsive to both testimonials and metrics, but media focus principally on the story that you are trying to tell. 
  • Think about ways you can leverage social media and live streaming.

It can be very helpful to present interactive data, which provides the flexibility to make the data most relevant to your circumstances. The more you are able to customize and tailor, the better.

Develop data visualization principles that are consistent with your organization’s values One of our interviewees noted that although audience expectations are important, so, too, are your organization’s values. The dominant narrative tends to focus on gaps and deficits at the student-level, rather than highlighting the systemic issues that have led to disparate outcomes for students experiencing homelessness. Further, there is seldom a focus on areas in which students experiencing homelessness may be excelling or thriving. Staying true to your own principles will not only preserve your organizational integrity, but will also help keep your team on track to meet your goal of supporting students.

Local Initiative - Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)

The Inclusive Economy Lab at the University of Chicago works with government and non-profit partners to identify barriers to social mobility and racial equity, and to develop effective strategies for removing these barriers. Their work cuts across traditional policy domains, including education, workforce development, housing and cash assistance programs. Read about their new report.
Section 2: Step-by-Step: How to Access and Use Data on Student Homelessness
Early Childhood Data
For data about very young children who are experiencing homelessness in your state, a good starting place is the US Department of Education report, Early Childhood Homelessness: 50 State Profiles.” This report provides a snapshot for every state, including estimates of the number of children under six years old who are homeless, and the percentage of those children who currently are not being served by federally-funded early childhood programs. Other key information about each state is also provided in an easily digestible manner. Here are a few example messages that can be pulled directly from this report with either no analysis or very simple comparisons across states using the “What, So What, Now What” framework.
→ “93% of homeless children under the age of 6 in Delaware were not served by Head Start/Early Head Start or McKinney-Vento funded ECE programs in the 2018-2019 school year.” → “Young children in Oklahoma face higher than average rates of homelessness. An estimated 7% of children under 6 in Oklahoma were homeless compared to 5.4% of children under 6 in the U.S. overall.”
→ Once you have pulled out these types of relevant statements for your state, you can draw on existing national research to explain why they matter”

  • “Experiences of homelessness in early childhood are associated with delays in children’s language, literacy, and social-emotional development.” [5]
  • “Early childhood programs prevent the harmful life-long effects of homelessness on education, health and well-being.” [6]
→ Lastly, you can identify a reasonable “next step” or recommendation based on your understanding of your community and state, as well as on relevant organizational or collaborative capacities:

  • The city should support collaborations between local shelters and early childhood centers to both identify opportunities for shelters to become more child friendly and to encourage families to enroll in early childhood programs. This type of approach has been successfully implemented in Philadelphia, PA. [7]

Real World Example

Using publicly-available data from the U.S. Department of Education showing how many children experiencing homelessness are being served by Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Pennsylvania and in the five counties that make up southeastern Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania People’s Emergency Center compiled a brief analysis of Pennsylvania’s Head Start programs. The data cited in the report show that while programs in the State do a better job serving children experiencing homelessness than the national average, there is still work to do. Advocates plan to use this information to make the case to state legislators that more and better services are needed. 
Using the same “What, So What, Now What” framework as above, here are a few more simple ideas to explore.

  • Using the US Department of Education report “Early Childhood Homelessness: 50 State Profile”, which states are most effectively reaching young homeless children with their early childhood programs? What are the similarities and differences between your state and the states with more effective outreach? Are there people with whom you can speak in those states to find out what they are doing that is working? With whom in your state could you share this information?
  • If you find that more granular detail is needed to engage people in your state on the issue of early childhood homelessness, you can combine this statewide data with your state’s K-12 data by school district (which we will discuss next). This type of analysis enables you to make policy recommendations such as:
    • “An estimated 8% of young children in Oklahoma were homeless in 2018. Based on K-12 data on student homelessness, school districts with likely issues of under-identification for K-12 students are (list the districts). Exploring outreach efforts in these districts is a logical first step to improving early childhood enrollment for young homeless children in the state.”
Did You Know:  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) and Head Start providers enter a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for services and to improve transitions between pre-K and Kindergarten. These MOUs are an opportunity to prioritize how children experiencing homelessness will be served, including how to share relevant data. For example, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has implemented a tiered approach to its MOUs, first ensuring that each LEA has submitted an MOU, then reviewing for strategies including serving children and families experiencing homelessness.

Local Initiative - Camden City School District (Camden, New Jersey)

In May, 2021, a collaboration of organizations partnered with the Camden City School District (CCSD) to prepare a report entitled Student Homelessness in Camden City School District: Mobility and Frequency 2014-15 through 2018-19. The report is uniquely focused on the mobility of students experiencing homelessness in and out of the district.
K-12 Students: Federal Department of Education Data
To answer the same basic questions for K-12 students at the state level, you can go to the NCHE data site. There, you will find both the national data on K-12 students experiencing homelessness, as well as an interactive map. You can also download the report from which the data was pulled. Here are a few sample messages that can be derived from this report with either no analysis, or very simple comparisons across states, using the “What, So What, Now What” framework.
→ Once you have pulled out these types of relevant statements for your state, you can draw on existing national research to bring home why these facts matter:

  • “School districts without McKinney-Vento subgrants may have greater challenges identifying students experiencing homelessness.”  
  • “Better graduation rates for high school students who are experiencing homelessness are possible.”
  • “Michigan is among the minority of states that do not allow most unaccompanied minors to consent for their own basic health care.”
→ Lastly, you can identify a reasonable “next step” or recommendation. As is the case with the early childhood examples, such recommendations should be based on your understanding of your community and state, as well as on relevant organizational or collaborative capacities.

  • Given the overall higher rate of homelessness in the State and the lower proportion of LEAs with McKinney-Vento subgrants, the State of Kentucky should look at how rates of identification vary between school districts with and without McKinney-Vento subgrants.”
  • “Outreach should be conducted to Kentucky and other states with higher graduation rates among students experiencing homelessness to identify practices that are helping students succeed.”
  • “Amending Michigan’s state laws to permit unaccompanied homeless youth to consent to their own health care would keep them safer and may empower them to access education and employment that can end their homelessness.”

Real World Example

Advocates in Kentucky used publicly available data on the academic and other outcomes of students experiencing homelessness to advance legislation to remove barriers to high school completion and accessing documents and health care. Data showed that students experiencing homelessness in Kentucky were 87% more likely to stop going to school, 4.6 times more likely to use prescription drugs, and 6.5 times more likely to attempt suicide. Using this data, advocates honed in on barriers that impact these outcomes, and were successful in advancing legislation that addresses the negative impacts of mobility on the educational outcomes of students experiencing homelessness, as well as allows unaccompanied homeless youth to obtain their own birth certificates and access mental health care. Read more about Kentucky HB 378 here.

Other Simple Data to Explore for K-12 Homelessness:

Data and information relating to a broad range of homeless educational issues are analyzed and summarized by NCHE. The latest NCHE report summarizing such data can be found at Student Homelessness in America: School Years 2017-18 to 2019-20. NCHE also maintains K-12 homeless education data going back to the 2006 school year on its data summary page.

The NCHE Federal Data Summary reflects state-specific data that has been deduplicated. EDFacts Repository. Local educational agency data can be found in EDFacts data files at EDFacts Data Files.

Here are some questions to explore using your state’s data and the information in the NCHE Federal Data Summary (complemented in some cases by information that can be derived from the flat files available at the EDFacts website or other readily available data).

If you are not sure what questions you are interested in exploring with the data you have, below are reports that can be useful in formulating “So What” statements for helping stakeholders understand why it is important to meet the needs of students who are experiencing homelessness. When you identify an issue that you think will resonate with your local stakeholders, circle back to your data to see if there is evidence for further exploration around that issue. 

  • The Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Survey (YRBS). Currently, many states include questions on homelessness as a part of this survey and in 2021 all states will include homelessness as an risk indicator. National analysis of the health and behavioral risks faced by homeless students can be found at SchoolHouse Connection’s website in its report on lessons learned from the YRBS.
  • Chapin Hall’s website has a large number of reports on unaccompanied youth homelessness and is an outstanding resource for anyone interested in addressing homelessness among unaccompanied youth in their state.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight is another report that provides context and compelling details on the experiences of youth who face homelessness in America’s public schools.

Did You Know:  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) report graduation and dropout data separately for students who are experiencing homelessness. As of December 2021, graduation and dropout data for homeless students in your state can be found in the National Center for Homeless Education Federal Data Summary: School Years 2016-17 through 2018-19. NCHE will release a separate report with updated graduation statistics in 2022.

Local Initiative - The People’s Emergency Center (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

The People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania exists to nurture families, strengthen neighborhoods and drive change in the Philadelphia community. They offer direct support to community members through housing, job training, and life skills classes. They also engage in strategic policy and advocacy, and have produced a number of research reports to support their cause and affect policy change. Check out their reports.
Higher Education Data
If you are interested in exploring data on youth who indicated that they were unaccompanied homeless youth when they applied for federal student aid, NCHE regularly reports on this data. (Note that these data do not represent an estimate or count of youth who are homeless in college, simply those who indicated homelessness on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) Some colleges and universities have higher education homeless liaisons (sometimes called Single Points of Contact). These are staff members who serve as coordinators for students experiencing homelessness, connecting such students to resources like housing, health services, and career guidance. Where they exist, higher education homeless liaisons can be helpful in gathering data about students experiencing homelessness across college and university campuses. In addition, several states issue annual surveys to all higher education homeless liaisons; these surveys have yielded important information, including how many students on campuses report that they are experiencing homelessness and the services offered by institutions of higher education.    Several states are creating systems to collect postsecondary data about students experiencing homelessness at a statewide level. For example, Virginia’s Department of Education collects data about high school students post-graduation, including students experiencing homelessness. This type of data linkage between systems can be a valuable tool for institutions of higher education to better understand the needs of their students, and for advocates who wish to create more supportive services.  

FAFSA and Homeless Youth: Challenges and Recommendations in the COVID Era

SchoolHouse Connection examined six years of financial aid data for unaccompanied homeless youth. These data demonstrate continued barriers to financial aid access – barriers that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak. Read more in the report, “FAFSA and Homeless Youth: Challenges and Recommendations in the COVID Era.” Other relevant information about post-secondary education for students experiencing homelessness can be found at SchoolHouse Connection’s higher education pages.

Real World Examples

  • Reading High School (Pennsylvania) hired a success coach to follow its students from high school into college and to facilitate the students’ post-secondary educational success, including through forging partnerships between the high school and local colleges and universities to share data and information about students experiencing homelessness. You can learn more in this SchoolHouse Connection archived webinar
  • In 2019, a RealCollege survey found that 17% of the responding students had experienced homelessness during the previous year. The survey reported data from 167,000 respondents from 171 two-year and 56 four-year institutions. 
  • The Hope Center conducted a similar survey during the pandemic and found that 11% of students at two-year institutions and almost 15% at four-year institutions had experienced homelessness due to the pandemic. This was taken from a sample of over 38,000 students attending 54 colleges and universities. 

Local Initiative - Black Male Institute at UCLA (Los Angeles, California)

The Black Male Institute at UCLA was founded in 2009 to address concerns around equity and access for Black males in education. They do this by engaging researchers, scholars, practitioners, community based organizations, policy makers and students in work across the P-20 spectrum. Check out their new report.
A Deeper Dive: LEA Data
You also can look at questions like those discussed above at a more local level. Generally, to do this, you would need to link the data on homelessness by school district (LEA) to the overall school enrollment data by school district (LEA) from the National Center for Homeless Education. For the purposes of this playbook, however, we have done this work for you. You can download the pre-merged SY 2018-19 all student enrollment and homeless student data set from the SchoolHouse Connection website, and read SHC’s analysis about why pre-pandemic data matters. Although analysis of this dataset requires some proficiency with Excel, most of the analysis can be done easily by using the filter and sort functions, taking notes, and asking yourself what does and does not make sense. Some questions that this more granular data can answer include the following:

  • Which ten districts in your state have the highest numbers of students experiencing homelessness? Does this list make sense based on the total student enrollment and the total number of children living in poverty in each district?
  • Which ten districts in the state have the highest percentages of students experiencing homelessness? Are these districts the same or different from the districts with the largest number of homeless students?
  • Which districts have the highest numbers of children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch? Are these districts the same as the districts with the highest numbers of homeless students? If they are not the same, is there a logical reason why they may differ, or is this evidence of a likely undercount?
  • Are there districts with high rates of poverty but low rates of homelessness? If so, is there a logical reason for this, or is it worth exploring whether there has been an undercount of students experiencing homelessness?
  • What does a map of the percentages of students experiencing homelessness by school districts in your state look like? 
  • Is the percentage of low-income students who are experiencing homelessness similar across the state, or does it vary widely? If it varies, does this variation make sense based on what you know about the affected districts?
  • Which ten districts have the highest numbers of unaccompanied homeless youth?
  • What are the staff-to-student ratios in districts with a higher percentage of students experiencing homelessness compared to districts with a lower percentage of such students?

This data set also allows you to look at the percentage of homeless students by primary nighttime residence, disability status, English language learning needs, and other school district indicators. The local nature of the data facilitates targeted outreach, and also can be useful for communicating with local media. If your organization has access to someone with mapping skills, another benefit of this data is that it is fairly easy to create a map that will enable visual comparisons across the state. An example of a map using this data can be seen below.

To use this data:

  1. Go to the data set. 
  2. Select Download Data.
  3. Open the Excel file and use the filter function to select only your state.
  4. Copy the selected data and paste it into a new Excel tab.
  5. Once the data is in a new tab, select all of the data in the sheet, go to the data function at the top of the excel sheet and select “Sort.”
  6. Start by sorting by the number of homeless students.
  7. Then sort by the percent of homeless students.
  8. Then sort by the number and percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. 
  9. As you are sorting the data, take notes. 
    • What patterns do you see, what makes sense, and what does not make sense? Often, what does not make sense only becomes obvious when you undertake comparisons. 
    • Remember no data is perfect, sometimes by looking through the data you may identify a place where the numbers have been recorded inaccurately, or where there is a large undercount of homeless students taking place. Bringing these to the attention of your community can be important in moving forward a conversation.
  10. You can also sort by the number of unaccompanied youth and the percent of students with disabilities who are identified as homeless. 
  11. From your notes, write down “What” statements. For example:
    • The ten districts with the largest number of homeless students were….
    • While ____ has the largest number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, it has a smaller number of homeless students than _____, which has fewer students receiving free or reduced-price lunch. 
    • ___school district identified less than 3 homeless students as having special education needs. 
    • __ identified only 11 unaccompanied youth. 
  12. To decide which issue(s) to focus on, follow these “What” statements by writing down why each of these facts is significant for your community. For example:
    • How does this data compare to other points of information and what does that suggest?
    • Where does the data point to there being the greatest need for services?

Real World Example

Using the EdFacts and LEA all student data file referenced above, researchers and advocates in Michigan were able to highlight widespread under-identification of children experiencing homelessness in Detroit. This information was used to strengthen the McKinney-Vento program at Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) and implement a more robust system of identification. Every school building in the district now has a trained McKinney-Vento point of contact and the number of students identified has increased from 605 in SY 2015-16 to over 2,000 in the first half of school year 2021-22.
K-12 Educational Outcome Data: Your State Department of Education
The data available from state Departments of Education varies significantly from one state to another. In some states, you will find dashboards with interactive figures and easily downloadable tables that already include some outcomes for homeless students. Other states, however, provide no data on homeless students at all. This makes it impossible to provide uniform instructions for how to use state Department of Education data, and is why it often is advisable to start with the Federal education data, such as that provided by NCHE and the National Center for Education Statistics (referred to above in chapter 7).  That said, if you are in a state that provides data disaggregated by homelessness status, this information can be incredibly useful to any advocacy and policy work. As a bonus, such data typically is available in a form that has already been processed for easy use. Therefore, exploring your state’s Department of Education data is an important step. Below are a few general tips.

  • Go to your state Department of Education website.
  • Look for a tab or check the website’s index for references to “data,” “analytics,” “reporting,” “accountability,” or something similar. 
  • From here, some states will have an interactive tool for you to use, while other states will have links to different Excel files. If there is an interactive figure generator, you can be relatively confident that if you search around enough, you can usually find an underlying Excel table organized by school district. Finding this may require some time.
  • The best indicator to explore first is Graduation and Dropout rates. This is because under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all states are required to list graduation and dropout rates for homeless students. If there is any publicly available data from your state’s Department of Education that is broken out by housing status, it will, at a minimum, include graduation and dropout rates.
  • The next two indicators that you most likely will be able to find are English and Math proficiency rates and chronic absenteeism. Again, not all states will have these available, but these indicators are the most likely to be included.
  • If you do not find these indicators in a publicly available format on your state’s Department of Education website, the next step is to send an email request to the person in charge of data for the state. Your request should be specific. Start by asking for Graduation and Dropout rates, ELA and Math Proficiency rates, and Chronic Absenteeism rates for: homeless vs. non-homeless students, economically disadvantaged/free or reduced-price lunch eligible students, and non-economically disadvantaged/free or reduced price lunch eligible students. Ask for these indicators broken out by these groups at the School District and  Intermediate School District (ISD) level. Requesting both geographical breakouts will provide you with more flexibility in case the school district geographic level has a lot of redacted data (data removed to protect the privacy of students due to small numbers).   
  • Examples of what this process looks like in a few different states are set forth below:
  • The Michigan Department of Education (MDE) houses its data at
  • To find attendance rates for students experiencing homelessness in kindergarten through high school, you would do the following: 
  • Click K-12 tab 
  • Students
  • Attendance
  • Report Category (Homeless)
  • Download/Print.
  • The Idaho Department of Education houses its data on its website at 
  • To find graduation rates for students experiencing homelessness in kindergarten through high school, you would do the following: 
  • Click Menu
  • Navigate to Departments > Assessment & Accountability
  • Accountability
  • Assessment & Graduation Rate Results
  • Scroll down to Graduation Rates and click on it
  • Click “Four Year Graduation Rate Master” to download file
  • Once you open the file, you will be able to see the graduation rate of different student populations.
  • The California Department of Education houses its data at (student-level data is available within DataQuest)
  • DataQuest affords flexibility in pulling a data set. For example, it provides the option to filter by subgroup: socioeconomically disadvantaged, migrant, foster, or homeless. Viewing it may provide ideas for advocacy in your own state, including advocacy urging education departments to make various data sets readily available.
Once you have exhausted all of your publicly available data sources, there may still be more questions that you need to answer. This is where individual K-12 student data is particularly useful. Some of the benefits include:

  • The micro, student-level allows for deeper analysis than meso- and macro-level data, because it provides flexibility to explore different trends, such as:
    • Homeless prevalence data by geographic areas
    • Personalized outcomes data.
  • Examining this data also allows for more tailored approaches to identifying student needs. 
  • Further, it can be used to track the long-term impacts of homelessness on students over an extended period of time, rather than at a single point in time.
  • In turn, demonstrating these trends can help focus conversations on what students are actually experiencing.
Did You Know:  Practitioners often believe that FERPA regulations categorically prohibit them from sharing student data and information. In reality, education records, including a student’s homelessness status, can be shared within the local educational agency or school among school officials (including teachers) who have a “legitimate educational interest” in the information. To avoid erecting a barrier to identification or increasing the likelihood of stigma for students experiencing homelessness, schools should interpret “legitimate educational interest” narrowly and avoid broad, categorical sharing of individualized homeless information school- or district-wide. In addition, schools should consult parents/students prior to sharing this sensitive, personal information. Some schools choose to share knowledge of a student’s housing situation with a limited, core group of school staff that includes only the homeless education liaison, school counselor/social worker, and classroom teacher. If a need to discuss student concerns with other staff arises, support can be provided without disclosing housing status by using sensitive language: “This student has a number of challenges outside of school right now.” (For more information, see “6 Things to Know about Privacy, FERPA, and Homelessness”)
There are many challenges associated with working with individual student-level data however. Some of these challenges include: 

  • A data-sharing agreement with your state will be required to obtain the data.
  • Some states have instructions and forms on their website for obtaining the data, while other states do not.
  • If you are interested in using individual-level data, you will likely need a research partner who has the capacity to analyze and store the data securely.
    • Research institutions may have the ability to house data in a way that would be FERPA-compliant. Be aware of any processes you might need to follow, such as filing paperwork for the Institutional Research Board (IRB).
Example Data-Use Agreement Information
The templates below are examples of the kind of forms and agreements that you will have to file or enter into in order to move forward with analyzing individual-level data. These documents vary by state and also by specific data-sharing arrangement, but the links below will provide you with an idea of what to expect and how to answer questions.

Conclusion / Moving Forward
We hope this playbook has provided you with concrete tools and concepts to use as you continue your work. We also hope it will spark ideas and conversations about how to use education data in innovative ways to improve educational experiences for students experiencing homelessness. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, data is an essential component of understanding the needs of students, schools and communities, especially those experiencing homelessness.
This playbook would not have been possible without the following organizations and individuals:

  • Jennifer Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate, University of Michigan Poverty Solutions (Michigan)
  • Matt Lemon, Interim Director of Research & Evaluation, Building Changes (Washington)
  • Ian Rosenblum, former Executive Director, The Education Trust – New York
  • Daniel Zavala, Interim Executive Director / former Director of Policy & Strategic Communications, Building Changes (Washington)
[1] Student Homelessness: Lessons from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey Part II: Racial and Ethnic Equity (2021, SchoolHouse Connection).
[2] Student Homelessness: Lessons from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey Part III: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Inequity (2021, SchoolHouse Connection)
[3] Student Homelessness: Lessons from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey Part X: Pregnancy Rates of High School Students Experiencing Homelessness (2021, SchoolHouse Connection)
[4] Economically Disadvantaged Students are those eligible for free- or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch program, are in households receiving food (SNAP) or cash (TANF) assistance, are eligible under Medicaid, are homeless, are migrant, or are in foster care.
[5] Ziol-Guest, K.M. & McKenna, C.C. (2014) “Early childhood housing instability and school readiness,” Child Development, 85(1), 101-113.
[7] See
[8] Note: if your state does not yet include questions on homelessness, these questions can be added to the next round. Reach out to SchoolHouse Connection for more information.

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