Homeless student numbers spike in some Colorado districts, according to KIDS COUNT report

Despite decreases in unemployment and poverty rates, the number of homeless students jumped in several Colorado communities last year, with the biggest increases in Denver, Pueblo and Mesa County.

That is one of the surprises in the treasure trove of data from the annual KIDS COUNT in Colorado report, released Monday by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

While counties such as Douglas and Larimer saw small decreases in their homeless student populations from 2013-14 to 2014-15, the numbers shot up by 68 percent in Mesa, 41 percent in Denver and 31 percent in Pueblo.

Leaders at the nonprofit children’s advocacy group say the unprecedented increases in homeless student numbers speak to the shortage of affordable housing even as other economic indicators have returned to pre-recession levels.

Sarah Hughes, research director at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said when the homelessness numbers arrived from the Colorado Department of Education this year, “Our eyes kind of bugged out like, ‘What’s going on here?’”

They learned after reaching out to the Denver Public Schools office serving homeless students that new employees had been added there enabling better identification of homeless students. At the same time, she said DPS staff “felt like at least a portion of this was a very real increase.”

The hikes are concerning because homeless students often lag behind their peers academically due to frequent school switches and high levels of chaos and stress. Under federal law, students are considered homeless if they live in shelters, cars, campgrounds, hotels or with another family on a temporary basis.

Statewide, the number of students living in hotels and shelters decreased last year, but the number temporarily living with other families—by far the largest category—increased by nearly 6 percent.

Hughes said while the affordable housing problem is well known in Denver, it’s less clear what caused the homeless student spikes in Pueblo and Mesa. She said the Children’s Campaign plans to inquire further in those districts.

As the homeless numbers indicate, KIDS COUNT illustrates vast differences in how children are doing  based on geography. Perhaps nowhere is that clearer than in the report’s annual ranking of child well-being in the state’s 25 most populous counties. The ranking is based on a variety of health, education, family and economic indicators.

Despite a slight change in indicators from last year’s report, this year’s top six counties — Douglas, Elbert, Broomfield, Boulder, Larimer and Jefferson counties — were exactly the same as last year’s. The same is true for the bottom three counties—Pueblo, Denver and Montezuma.

This year’s 174-page report also features several new topics, including:

  • A comparison of the performance of online schools and bricks and mortar schools.
  • Data on children living in crowded housing and in families with high housing cost burdens.
  • A look at the percentage of young children evaluated after being flagged on developmental screenings.

Other key education findings:

  • In 2012, Colorado spent an average of $2,721 less per pupil than the national average, a gap that’s grown every year since 2008.
  • This year, 76 percent of Colorado kindergartners are enrolled in full-day programs, with rates upwards of 90 percent for Latino and Black children.
  • Last year, 17,000 Colorado students were enrolled in alternative education campuses up from 13,000 the year before. Such programs serve students with special needs or who are deemed “high-risk.”
  • Nearly one-third of the state’s online schools have one of the lowest two performance ratings compared to 10 percent of bricks and mortar schools.
  • In 2013-14, one-quarter of Colorado’s 11th- and 12th-graders participated in dual-enrollment programs allowing them to earn college credit.
  • The percentage of Colorado high school graduates needing remedial help in college has declined since 2009, but more than one-third still need the extra help.