Charter Schools Serving Students Experiencing Homelessness

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Student with backpack from behind

Around the country, there are approximately 1.5 million school-age children experiencing homelessness, including thousands served by public charter schools.

For students experiencing homelessness, education can be truly life-altering and charter schools have the opportunity to leverage their flexibility and autonomy to meet these students’ unique needs. Many charter schools have built exemplary school environments that meet students’ basic needs and support their education.

The National Alliance is proud to partner with SchoolHouse Connection—a national nonprofit organization working to overcome homelessness through education—to offer charter schools resources on how to support students experiencing homelessness in their communities.

Defining Homelessness

Homelessness is extremely destabilizing and stressful for children. It makes it difficult for students to engage meaningfully in school, leaving students more likely to be suspended or expelled and increases the likelihood of dropping out.

The term “homeless” may conjure up images of sleeping on a park bench or staying at an emergency shelter, however the federal definition of homelessness includes a much broader range of unstable living situations that impact a child’s well-being. Federal law defines homelessness as “lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Legal Responsibilities and Opportunities

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act provides rights and services for students experiencing homelessness and requires charter schools—like all public schools—to identify, enroll, and serve students experiencing homelessness. Our Supporting Students Experiencing Homelessness in Charter Schools Toolkit, produced in collaboration with SchoolHouse Connection, explains the basic legal requirements of the McKinney-Vento Act and highlights best practices from the charter school community.

With greater autonomy and flexibility, charter schools have an opportunity to serve students experiencing homelessness particularly well. Many charter schools are designed to serve specific communities and can be nimble in response to changing needs.

An upcoming report from SchoolHouse Connection will take a more in-depth look at how charter schools are addressing homelessness across the country. Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., for example, where 21% of students are identified as homeless, is deeply invested in providing social-emotional support and wraparound services, including employing several social workers. Monte Del Sol Charter School in New Mexico works with community partners, including utility companies and health care providers, to help families with housing costs, utility bills, accessing medical care, and more.

Meeting Student Needs during the COVID-19 Crisis

Distance learning and other COVID-19 related disruptions to schooling mean it’s easier than ever for vulnerable students to slip through the cracks. School is a critical source of stability and basic services. Further, students experiencing homelessness face significant barriers to engaging fully with distance learning—including lack of access to WiFi, devices, and a stable location from which to participate—leaving them even further behind their peers.

As the pandemic continues, charter schools have the opportunity to put special focus on meeting the needs of vulnerable students and ensure they are able to participate in distance learning. SchoolHouse Connection’s forthcoming report also highlights how charter schools have responded to the COVID-19 crisis. Briya Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., for example, distributed Chromebooks to all students, provided every student a $100 debit card for groceries, and helped families connect to essential community services.

Students experiencing homelessness face significant barriers to accessing a high-quality education, especially given the additional challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Charter schools, however, have the opportunity to build systems that center student needs and serve children experiencing homelessness well.

Resources on Serving Students Experiencing Homelessness in Charter Schools


Fiona Sheridan-McIver is the senior manager of policy & government relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.