State data shows spike in Spokane youth homelessness — but SPS says that's wrong

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The Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is taking a second look at how it collects student homelessness data
  • The Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is taking a second look at how it collects student homelessness data

Spokane Public Schools has disputed data from the Washington state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction showing an increase in homeless students in the district since last year.

Yet OSPI, though it confirmed a discrepancy, is not concerned that the numbers may be wrong in any other school district.

Last month, the state superintendent sent out a news release claiming the number of homeless students in Washington had climbed to nearly 40,000 in 2015-16. In Spokane Public Schools, OSPI's data said 1,850 students did not have a stable place to call home last school year, which would have been an increase of 36 percent from the 2014-15 school year.

But Spokane Public Schools says that is not what it reported.

"There was not an increase in homeless students in our district last year according to our data," says Sarah Miller, liaison for Spokane Public Schools' HEART program that works with students experiencing homelessness.

In fact, Spokane Public Schools says it reported 1,334 homeless students for the 2015-16 school year, about the same as what was reported the previous year. That number is roughly 500 less than what OSPI included in its dataset released in January.

OSPI's communications manager, Nathan Olson, has confirmed that OSPI released a higher number than what Spokane Public Schools reported. But the reason for the discrepancy, he says, is that Spokane Public Schools actually reported two different numbers.

Spokane Public Schools, he says, reported its count of homeless students for the 2015-16 school year into a database called the Education Data System, and the district certified those numbers — the lower number of 1,334 homeless students — in the fall. But by the time OSPI pulled the numbers a couple months later, the district had added 522 students, according to Olson. That's where the higher count came from.

This is the same process used for all districts in Washington, and Olson says typically the process "works fairly well." Last year, for example, the numbers were off by 45 students statewide out of more than 35,000 homeless students, he says.

It remains unclear whether the number of homeless students counted in other districts varies from what OSPI says. Seattle Public Schools, which was also listed as having an increase of more than 500 homeless students from last year, tells the Inlander there is no discrepancy between what the district reported and what OSPI released.

OSPI collects numbers on homeless students each year as part of the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which aims to provide homeless students the same education as others. The school definition of homelessness is broader than the U.S. Housing and Urban Development definition.

Olson says OSPI started looking into the issue after the Inlander began inquiring about the discrepancy last week.

"While I'm never happy about inconsistent data, I really hope that this issue doesn't overshadow the overall story," Olson says. "The homeless student population is increasing, and those students need help."