It’s the last week of May, which means thousands of high school students are graduating, crossing the stage and stepping into adulthood while their families break the “no clapping until the end” rule out of sheer joy.
Every student overcomes obstacles on their way to graduation, but many do so while dealing with the kind of instability that most adults couldn’t cope with. According to a study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the percentage of  homeless people in families with children in Oklahoma jumped from 11 percent to 24 percent last year, the second largest increase in any state. New Hampshire reported 26 percent. A 2016 study by the US Department of Education found that 40 percent of formerly homeless youth said they either dropped out or stopped attending school.
While shelters and resources exist in every state, help for homeless youth often comes from the one place they may dread going the most: school. School districts use a framework of teachers, counselors, administrators, homeless assistance programs and outside organizations to try to help students who are dealing with the stress, instability and lack of reliable housing causes.
Ardmore City Schools District Homeless/Parent Liaison Sabra Emde said her district served 169 homeless students this year.  That number includes students living in hotels or motels, in shelters, living with family members or living unsheltered. 63 of the listed students were unaccompanied youth.
The school uses the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Program for everything from finding places for students and their families to stay to helping them pay utilities if necessary and even getting counseling for students who need it.
“For so many of these children in this situation, they may have had two hours sleep, they’re struggling just to get up, get out the door, get on the bus. They might not have clean clothes, they might not even have school supplies,” Emde said. “Can you imagine a child even wanting to go to school in a situation like that? And it’s not the kids’ fault. It might not even be the parents’ fault.”
Parents fill out a questionnaire about their housing status at enrollment, but if a family becomes homeless during the school year, parents need to self-report. Information about available services is posted on school websites, but not everyone knows the resources are there.
“Typically what happens is that a kid will say something in class and a teacher will overhear it,” Emde said. “Then, that teacher reports it to a counselor or directly to me.”
Emde, who has been with the district for more than a decade, said she’s noticed a pattern in Carter County. Income-controlled apartment complexes exist, but consistently have long waiting lists. Emde said that forces a lot of struggling families into hotels, a significantly more expensive option that pushes them deeper into poverty.
“Housing is exorbitant in Ardmore,” Emde said. “Especially with minimum wage where it is, it’s almost impossible for a single mom to rent a place.”
The chronic stress brought on by homelessness has a lifelong impact on minors, especially young children. A 2007 study, “Cumulative Risk, Maternal Responsiveness and Allostatic Load Among Young Adolescents,” found that living in poverty created the kind of chronic stress that would impact their psychological, emotional and physical development and follow them for the rest of their lives.
Not every educator is trained to deal with the results. Take Two Academy Counselor Stacy Kennedy has been with the alternative school for 14 years. She said the school used trauma-informed care training to reach students who, on the surface, seem angry, irritable, apathetic and outright hostile when they first enroll.
“It’s ‘give me a zero, I don’t care,’” Kennedy said. “They have those walls, and it takes time. Sometimes we do, and there are times there’s just been too much damage and they’re not ready.”
Kennedy said she’d estimate that of the school’s 60 or so students, only 20 percent come from a stable living situation.
“Sometimes, meeting their basic needs and them knowing they can depend on somebody is more than they’ve had in years,” Kennedy said. “Some of our students have lived in their cars or couch-hopped for as long as they can remember.”
When a student enrolls, they fill out an Adverse Childhood Experiences survey, created by the Centers for Disease Control.  The ACE survey asks about traumatic experiences that student may have experienced.
Take Two Director Lori Bell said kids who’ve experienced trauma are frequently misdiagnosed with ADD or ADHD as a result of their behavior. She said that for this year’s Take Two students, grief was a huge common factor, as students tried to cope with loss while continuing with their day-to-day schedules.
“If we don’t have those basic needs met then we can’t even begin to teach academically,” Bell said. “If their brains aren’t ready to learn, you can’t teach.”
“We tell them when they come in that we can’t control what happens when they leave us at 3:15 until they return to us at 8 the next morning,” Kennedy said. “We do everything we can to control their surroundings and make sure they’re in a safe environment.”
The homelessness assessment didn’t always exist. Before McKinney-Vento, teachers would do their best to pick out struggling students and find out what their living situations were and did what they could to help kids one-on-one. James Meece, a former Take Two administrator, often drove kids to shelters, helped them contact relatives and raised money so students could stay at hotels.  They introduced the McKinney-Vento program roughly 10 years ago, a change that brought the extent of the problem to light.
“He’d do everything he could to catch the ones that were a little more obvious than the others,” Kennedy said. “We started to see more when Sabra started finding these missing pieces.”
Today, there are still barriers that allow students to slip through the cracks. More often than not, it’s a teacher that finally catches on and calls a counselor or Emde directly.
“You can meet a kid who, every day, can be perfectly well-dressed with great grades,” Kennedy said. “You’ve seen this side of this child almost the entire school year and suddenly they have a huge meltdown, they’re cussing and yelling that you don’t understand. You finally delve into their life and you realize they don’t have a place to live.”
Large class sizes make recognizing red flags all the more difficult for teachers in the average Oklahoma public school, and a homeless student can go unnoticed for much longer in a large classroom than a small one.
“If they’ve got 35 kids in a classroom, that’s hard,” Kennedy said. “The best thing you can do for those 34 other kids is remove them, and it’s sad.”
Students may also hide their situation out of shame or embarrassment. Sometimes, parents encourage them to stay quiet, but occasionally, it’s a miscommunication and students are mistakenly under the impression that their parents want them to keep mum.
“It’s about making sure that when they get here they know, if they had no electricity, they haven’t showered or they had to sleep in their car, they know that we’re going to meet their basic needs,” Kennedy said. “If we’re not meeting their basic needs, then they’re not able to learn.”
The district is now more adept at finding and helping homeless students, but some resources have been lost in the shuffle.
Take Two shrank by about half when it moved from Dickson to its Ardmore location in 2011. That year, reduction-in-force measures reduced space and staff. Additional programs like ELL classes for adults, parenting classes and behavior classes for young children were eventually discontinued and the school is only equipped to teach high school-age students.
“In actuality, the alternative education program is supposed to serve grades 7 through 12,” Bell said. “We’re unable to serve middle school students, so our focus is on grade 11 and 12.”
Take Two is moving into a new location next year, something that will give them more space.
“We’re hoping that once we get situated there, we’ll be able to bring in more staff eventually,” Kennedy said. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to where we were. It would be great if we did, but it has to be baby steps. We’ll hopefully get to keep growing.”