Earl Edwards: Doctoral Student Aims to Improve Paths for Homeless Children and Youth

Doctoral student shares his own experience with homelessness in Education Week article, conducts research for UCLA's Black Male Institute and Center for the Transformation of Schools.

During his high school years in Brockton, Massachusetts, Earl Edwards kept his status as a homeless student a secret from his teachers, counselors, and classmates.

“One of the times we were homeless, we lived in a shelter, and I felt like I just couldn’t talk to anyone about it,” says Edwards, who is now a doctoral student in Urban Schooling at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. “None of my friends knew, I didn’t tell any teachers. I really had to go through that experience alone, even though the district knew about my circumstances and we got some benefits, like a bus pass.”

Later, when his family had overcome homelessness and he had become a teacher himself, Edwards was also unaware of the housing status of some of his students. Today, he is conducting research on ways that schools and communities can support homeless students and improve their ability to achieve a quality education and go to college.

“When I was teaching, I never thought about homelessness as being a major barrier for students who were in my classroom,” Edwards says. “I had kids volunteer and tell me a lot of different things when I was teaching. Some of the things they would say were, ‘I’m living with a friend,’ ‘I’m staying over here,’ ‘I’ve been moving around a lot,’ or ‘I just ran away from this foster care program.’ I didn’t realize that if you are living with extended family members that you actually qualify for [federal and state] support. I would hear these things, but I wouldn’t connect it to homelessness because I had this perception that homelessness was living in a homeless shelter or living on the streets.”

In an article for Education Week published earlier this year, Edwards shared his experiences as a homeless student, and the challenges that his teachers and schools faced in supporting him. He wrote about schools’ inability to address the needs of homeless students, due to a lack of knowledge about the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a federal measure passed in 1987 that would help schools to identify and support these students. Since the act was reauthorized under ESSA in 2015, districts have been required to increase outreach efforts to identify homeless students and inform families of their legal rights to supports for well-being and academic achievement. He says that states also have additional policies that can smooth the way for homeless students, whose living conditions hamper studying, let alone academic success.

“The federal policy gives a framework for requirements and state policies mirror that with additional supports,” says Edwards. “For example, in California a junior or senior who experiences homelessness in high school could [qualify for] a reduced credit load in order to make sure they receive their high school diploma. Instead of having to meet all the requirements that their local district has for graduation, they can meet the state graduation requirements and leave out a couple [of credits] if their experience of being homeless affected their academic opportunities.”

“The goal is to alleviate barriers to education,” he says. “There are a lot of other [policies] you could add, to make the argument that homelessness is a barrier and something we need to mitigate so that a child could actually learn and be effective at school.”

Edwards says, however, that interventions like an abbreviated course load can have long-term negative effects on a student’s academic record.

“It’s a positive because it allows individuals to get their high school diploma which opens them up to job opportunities or going to a community college and getting an associates’ degree and transferring or getting a certificate,” he says. “But the downside of it is that depending on when you make that decision, that the student doesn’t meet the requirements for A-G and doesn’t qualify for Cal State or UCs directly out of high school. If the liaisons are not figuring out what they can do at the high school level to make those credits up, then it can put students who are experiencing homelessness at a disadvantage. It could be tracking them into community college and not doing well there.”

Edwards, who was a high school special education teacher for four years in Rhode Island, says that there are trigger behaviors that can tip teachers off about student homelessness.

“There are physical things that you can see,” he says. “For example, the lack of a change of clothes. Excessive tardiness, students sleeping in class. But a lot of the time, you just can’t tell, especially at the high school level. Kids don’t want to look like they’re not doing well. I did a lot to make sure I looked like I was just like a regular kid.”

Edwards’ determination paid off when in his sophomore year, he transferred from Brockton High School to Mount Greylock Regional High School, a high-performing public school in Williamstown, Mass. He and seven other students from underserved communities had the opportunity to live on the Williams College campus through a program called A Better Chance.

“When I was at Brockton, I was tracked low, which I learned about later, but I did well academically,” Edwards recalls. “Going to Williamstown, I realized how far academically I was behind. In the 10th grade, I was reading at a 5th or 6th grade level. I had to pull all-nighters to get through the work. At the same time, I was still technically homeless. So, while I was being housed in this program during the school year, I went home at Christmas to a motel. I also had my brothers living through that when I was gone. I still didn’t talk about [being homeless], when I was in the program. I didn’t disclose this to anyone until my senior year, in my college essay.”

Edwards graduated from Greylock and was accepted to Boston College, where he achieved his bachelor’s degree in sociology. He went on to teach high school special education through Teach for America in Providence, Rhode Island, and attain his master’s degree in public school administration from Teachers College. After moving to Los Angeles, Edwards taught at a charter school and also served as a long-term substitute teacher in the Compton Unified School District. The third of six brothers, he was the first in his immediate family to attend college. One younger brother is a teacher in Fall River, Mass., and the other is a teacher’s assistant in Brockton.

At UCLA, Edwards is a researcher in the Black Male Institute and the Center for the Transformation of Schools. He is working with UCLA Distinguished Professor of Education and CTS founder and director Pedro Noguera on a chapter in an upcoming anthology on structural racism. Noguera is a co-editor of the book.

“In our chapter, we’re looking at how structural racism has led to a disproportionate number of African Americans experiencing homelessness,” says Edwards. “We are looking at how more African American children are led into foster care because of [racial] bias within the process of identifying individuals as having neglect. Black children are in the foster care system longer than White children and they’re more likely to age out of the system, [and] there are a huge percentage of individuals that age out of the foster care system that end up homeless.”

Edwards says that his interest in research began at Boston College, where he was president of the campus NAACP chapter and was involved in student government.

“I did a project on the Black male experience at predominantly White institutions and was able to use that research to push for policies on campus,” he says. “That showed me the power of research and using that research for change. A lot of the work that BMI is doing right now is focused on the research aspects of being a first-generation student of color and doing well and succeeding at UCLA.

“Often, we [researchers] don’t listen to the practitioners or the young people we’re trying to help,” notes Edwards. “We need to make sure we have research coming out that centers on their voices and makes sure we’re using their advice to form our practice and recommendations on how to make things better. My journey of becoming a scholar is based on understanding that it’s important to conduct research, but also knowing what it feels like to be an individual outside of school, as a teacher, a community member, and a mentor. It’s good to be working on a topic that I can be passionate about and to have the opportunity to bridge those gaps.”

In addition to his research, Edwards has made a commitment to give back through his leadership in Concerned Black Men of Los Angeles, a Los Angeles nonprofit focused on young Black and Latino men’s issues. He serves on the organization’s board, has redesigned its website, and has also established the Emerging Leaders Program within CBMLA for students in South Los Angeles. Edwards is also an active participant in the Empowerment Congress, led by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, working with UCLA Education Professor Tyrone Howard on educating the community about trauma and how it affects children and young people.

Earl Edwards is married to Elianny Edwards, a GSE&IS doctoral student in the Division of Human Development & Psychology. Mrs. Edwards is also an alumna of A Better Chance and a BMI researcher; she will teach a “Sister-to-Sister” course in Winter of 2018. She has also created her own mentoring program for Latina high school students. The couple’s philosophy of “paying it forward” for the next generation of students is no coincidence. In his research on student homelessness, Earl Edwards has found that those who have overcome this kind of adversity and have succeeded both academically and professionally, also want to give back to those who face similar challenges.

“Among all the individuals I’ve talked to, they want a job where they’re giving back and helping individuals that are also facing adverse situations,” he observes. “Some just graduated from high school and are going to community colleges. Others are at places like UCLA and are doing extremely well. You would think after facing homelessness and living in poverty, the students would make it to a college and pick a career that guarantees them the most money possible.’

“They all said, ‘No, I want to be a teacher.’ ‘I want to be a professor.’ ‘I want to be a researcher on homelessness to figure out how we can make sure fewer kids have to go through that.’ That says a lot about the value that these individuals have in our society and what we can do moving forward. Too often, we look at it like, ‘They’re not doing well. They have all these achievement gaps.’ We need to look at it from the perspective of when these young people have the opportunity to do what they can do with a stable environment, they can thrive and they can actually do a lot to help our country – to help us as a whole, to do better and to do more.”

To read “Advice From a Formerly Homeless Youth” by Earl Edwards, click here.


Photo courtesy of Earl Edwards