Dissertation of the Year
Winner Helps Fill Unmet Needs of Doubled-Up Homeless Students

Written by Judy Tierney

As the principal of an elementary school in the Corpus Christi Independent School District in Texas and member of the board of directors for one of the community's homeless shelters, Dr. Bruce Wilson thought he had a good understanding of the school system's homeless population. But when he changed jobs to become principal of a nearby middle school and requested information about the homeless students in his new school, he was shocked by the results.

Dr. Bruce Wilson Dr. Bruce Wilson

"When the campus homeless enrollment numbers were provided, I knew that all the area shelters combined did not house that many homeless youths," said Wilson. "It was then I discovered the calculations included students who were labeled as ‘doubled-up.'"

Wilson learned that doubled-up children, generally along with their parents, reside in the household of family or friends due to economic hardships. Of the four residential-based subgroups of homeless youth – sheltered, motel/hotel residents, car/tent lodging, and doubled-up – these students represent the largest subpopulation in Wilson's community, and the number continues to increase.

"In our community, many of our doubled-up students had been displaced by Hurricane Harvey and were living in someone else's home, perhaps sleeping on the floor or a couch, and sharing food with the other household," explains Wilson. "While I was knowledgeable about the resources other homeless kids were receiving, I knew I needed a better grasp on the experiences of doubled-up students and how this situation was impacting their academic achievement."

As a doctoral student in Northcentral University's School of Education, Wilson selected the topic for his dissertation research. When he graduated in August 2018 with his PhD in Education with a specialization in educational leadership, he received the Dissertation of the Year Award for his work titled, "A Qualitative Case Study on the Academic Impact of Middle School Students Living as Doubled-Up Homeless Youths."

"These kids need a confidant that they can trust to share their challenges..."

—Dr. Bruce Wilson

Throughout his research, Wilson interviewed students, teachers and parents to learn the perceptions of the kids, as well as the adults who interacted with them on a daily basis. He found that there was often a disconnect between assumptions adults made about the students and the challenges students were facing.

"The research showed that teachers were often unaware a student was doubled up, and this impacted their attitude," said Wilson. "For example, adults commonly misinterpreted silence as a student choosing to not actively engage in a lesson or as a sign that they were under the influence. In reality, the child may have just been worried about where they were going to sleep that night or whether their parents or siblings were okay."

Doubled-up youths generally do not receive the same resources, supplies and tools that are provided to homeless children in shelters. While Wilson believes communities need to do more to ensure students have what they need to be successful, based on his research, their most important need is for someone to confide in.

"A student told me they just need an adult in the school that they can relate to and who will talk to them about their struggles," Wilson says. "These kids need a confidant that they can trust to share their challenges, not only of being a middle school student, but a doubled-up student who is continually moving from one home to another."

"The research showed that teachers were often unaware a student was doubled up, and this impacted their attitude."

—Dr. Bruce Wilson

In a system that has not traditionally recognized doubled-up students, Wilson says the onus is on leadership to ensure that teachers, counselors and administrators are aware of which students are doubled up. Starting with community liaisons who help the homeless enroll their children in school, leaders need to track which category a child falls into and advise the adults who interact them. Armed with this information, adults can better understand the types of resources homeless youth may or may not be receiving.

Wilson hopes his dissertation research will encourage communities to proactively identify doubled-up youth so that teachers and schools can assist them with their unique situations to become successful learners. He plans to submit journal articles and share his new knowledge at conferences, both across the U.S. and internationally.

As a first step, he's making sure the information is spread to all 60 campuses within his own district, where he was recently named principal of Roy Miller High School. "In my new role, a major focus will be to ensure that my staff knows how passionate I am about doing all we can to meet the needs of these students," Wilson emphasizes.

Wilson would also like to see his research expanded to high school students and elementary students. "I think what's been done so far is just a foundation," he says. "Hopefully the research is the beginning of the conversation about what our community schools and organizations can do to make additional counseling, guidance and services available to all doubled-up students, parents and educators to help these kids succeed."