PS 188 in the Lower East Side. | schools.nyc.gov> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter
At PS 294 in the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx, where about a third of the school’s students are homeless, principal Daniel Russo has arranged “walk pools” to nearby shelters to make sure young students get to school safely.
At PS 446 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, principal Meghan Dunn has said she’s in need of more funding for the many emotionally disturbed students who live in temporary housing, but that there's little money left over after caring for the basic needs of her 100 or so homeless students.
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And at PS 188 on the Lower East Side, where just under half of the school's students are homeless, schools chancellor Carmen Fariña recently surveyed a seventh grade class and politely but firmly asked a student to look her in the eyes and tell her if he came to school every day.
As the number of people in homeless shelters continues its record-breaking rise, New York City is facing an unprecedented crisis in how to educate its homeless students.
One recent study, by the nonprofit New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, estimated that more than 105,000 students — or about 10 percent of the entire public school population — live in homeless shelters or foster care, or are doubled up in living situations with with family, friends or acquaintances. That number is more than twice the estimated 50,926 homeless students who were enrolled in the 2007-08 school year.
Building an infrastructure to support the city’s most vulnerable children has presented an enormous challenge for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, as shelters swell and more homeless students bring a range of challenges to public schools.
Interviews with over two dozen officials, advocates and educators suggest that, while $30 million in new city support is helping the schools with the most homeless students, the administration’s efforts are leaving many children without the support they need.
Schools like PS 294, PS 446 and PS 188 — along with the other 266 schools with homeless populations at 20 percent or above — demonstrate a dizzying array of challenges, as they struggle with absenteeism, stretched resources, physical and mental health needs, and uneven communication with various government agencies.
Homeless students tend to be concentrated in a relatively small number of schools, which are not always located near shelters.
The city “doesn’t quite have a handle on why we see clustering of students in shelters,” said Liza Pappas, an education policy analyst for the Independent Budget Office. Families who move from shelter to shelter in multiple boroughs often gravitate towards the small numbers of schools with strong support structures for homeless students, even if that requires a two-hour commute each way.
While that can add to the challenges within those schools, the city does not see spreading homeless students across more schools as a solution to the problems, and believes instead that it can better focus homeless services on the affected schools.
“We have to get over [the idea] that we’re punishing kids if we’re clustering them together,” Fariña said in an interview after her tour of PS 188. “We’re actually giving them opportunities to talk about what they’re going through."
The trauma that many homeless students bring to school isn’t always apparent at first glance.
At PS 446, PS 188 and PS 294, clean hallways are filled with students’ writing and art, classrooms are orderly if occasionally overcrowded, and children are enthusiastic. After observing a math lesson at PS 188, Fariña said she would have never known the school had one of the highest homeless populations in the city judging by the rigor of the lesson.
But the schools' students face extraordinary difficulties.
On a recent morning at PS 294, Russo said, a new immigrant who spoke no English came into the main office crying hysterically, because she was on the verge of being evicted from her apartment and didn’t know where to stay. The school connected her with a translator, and found her and her child placement in a nearby women’s shelter.
In a third grade class at PS 446 for students with special needs, two girls sat across from each other, and while one talked about a toy that was too expensive for her family to afford, the other girl paused when the conversation about TV shows turned to Tom & Jerry.
“When I watch it I feel hurt, because sometimes the cat gets hit, and I get hit, too,” she said.
The school's principal, Meghan Dunn, put it bluntly as she walked between classrooms on a recent school day.
"You have to see teaching as a social justice action to be successful here," she said.
ENSURING THAT HOMELESS CHILDREN GET TO SCHOOL — and arrive on time — is one of the most vexing challenges for schools with high homeless populations.
Homeless students are often shuttled between temporary housing, and they frequently accompany their parents to appointments for shelter and other services. PATH, the Bronx intake center for the entire shelter system, is the first point of contact for families looking for shelter placement, and until recently, required all members of a family to be present each time a parent came to apply.
The city recently amended that rule, requiring parents to bring their children to PATH only on the first visit — and not when they come to re-apply within 30 days — but the new policy does not seem to have taken hold.
Dunn, the principal of PS 446 — where 34 percent of students were chronically absent last year — said in a recent interview that she had “no idea” about the new policy.
Doris Laurenceau, the community schools director at PS 294 in the Bronx, said that while the school can inform families of the change, many PATH employees appear to be unaware of the new policy. And some families continue to bring their children along to PATH even if they are aware of the new rule, in the hopes that toting a young child will increase their chances of speedy shelter placement.
The Department of Education has one representative on site at PATH and another at department headquarters who oversees PATH, but principals say families often don’t receive information about schools near their new shelter placements or how to ensure their children stay at their existing schools. Though students living in commercial hotels are eligible for busing to school, some families are not aware of their rights or don’t use them during the ten-day conditional placements in hotels, meaning students can miss multiple days of school at a time, providers said.
Principals said the city’s community schools program, which adds social services to schools in low-income neighborhoods, and new staff focused on attendance have helped them boost their attendance rates in the last few years.
At PS 294, attendance has climbed eight points this year to 94 percent, a boost principal Russo attributed in part to a new staffer — funded by the community school program — who ensures that students who miss school receive a phone call or home visit to find out why the child was absent.
At PS 188, attendance is up five percentage points, to 92 percent, compared to three years ago. The school is also part of the city’s community school program, and principal Sunny Ramos holds a weekly “cabinet meeting” to discuss absenteeism with senior school staff, along with a family worker from a nearby shelter. The community school program has also brought a food bank to PS 294, and has helped the school connect parents to jobs.
At PS 446, Dunn, the principal, has split her staff into two “attendance teams” — one that works with families when young children miss school, and another that speaks directly to students in fourth and fifth grade who walk themselves to school.
The city has recently added attendance teachers staffed in shelters, which school leaders and advocates call a welcome addition, if not nearly enough.
“We’re only in 29 schools,” said Margaret Crotty, the executive director of the community-based organization Partnership With Children, which helps PS 446 with attendance and other issues. “It’s a tiny sliver.”
IN APRIL, DE BLASIO ANNOUNCED $30 MILLION in additional funding to bolster services for the increasing number of homeless students.
The funding will be used to create health centers at elementary schools with at least 50 homeless students and fund subsidies for those clinics to provide physical and mental health care, and will provide literacy coaches in shelters and social workers in schools. In January, the city expanded busing for homeless children to include all children in shelters and commercial hotels from kindergarten to sixth grade — 360 new routes serving more than 750 schools.
Over $10 million of that funding is used for shelter-based services. Fariña recently created an “afterschool learning club” for 1,400 homeless students in 18 shelters. The program will bring Department of Education teachers into shelters three times a week for three hours at a time to read with students and help them with homework. The Department of Homeless Services has opened 30 libraries in shelters.
When Fariña announced the program at the Flushing Family Residence in Bushwick, Brooklyn, last week, she gave each child their own copy of Leo the Late Bloomer, one of her favorite children’s books. “You can’t overestimate the power of owning your own book,” Fariña said.
The city also recently launched a $280,000 pilot program aimed at helping 3,800 students living in 170 shelters with admissions, officials told POLITICO New York. The initiative will train social workers and shelter-based family assistants to help students with admissions, fund admissions workshops in shelters, along with busing eighth graders to citywide high school fairs and transporting families of young children to pre-kindergarten information sessions.
There are Department of Education 117 family workers in shelters tasked with coordinating services for students in shelter. But the number of family workers has not grown along with ballooning homelessness rates.
“The Department of Education has been significantly under-resourced in working with families,” said Pappas, education policy analyst for the IBO. “The system they are in now is the same one they’ve been using for years.”
And the new funding is guaranteed only through the end of this fiscal year. Lois Herrera, the CEO of the Department of Education’s office of safety and youth development, said the city is “looking for ways to expand that funding if possible, given the financial restraints we have.”
Fariña said she knows leaders of schools with many homeless students aren’t getting everything they need. She said the goal is to bring in “more guidance counselors, more crisis intervention, more social workers, and more people on staff who can work with parents, particularly on mental health.”
She said she is planning a conference for principals of schools with large homeless populations and has encouraged private companies like P.C. Richard and Scholastic to donate washing machines and books, respectively, to schools and shelters.
The city is also in the process of creating a directory for school leaders overseeing large numbers of homeless students, after principals complained that they didn’t know who to call at nearby shelters or at the Department of Education when they need help.
But even for schools with long-established structures to support homeless students, the full suite of services the city has to offer is not always enough.
PS 188 has educated a disproportionate number of homeless students for the last two decades, and has become something of a model school for that population. But even with a guidance counselor, a social worker, a crisis team, a community school director, a mental health clinic open five days a week, a school building open 13 hours a day and on Saturdays, and three hot meals for students a day, Ramos said “we still need more resources.” She’s hoping for another guidance counselor, along with a literacy coach and math coach to help students who arrive late to school or fall behind academically.
Herrera said the nature of supporting homeless students means there is “always outstanding work to be done.”
SCHOOLS WITH LARGE NUMBERS OF HOMELESS STUDENTS also have disproportionately large special education populations.
Principals, advocates and providers said those homeless students with extra needs — including students learning English, receiving special education services, or living in domestic violence shelters — are those most likely to be left behind by stretched support systems.
Students often show up hours early or late to school because of persistent busing problems, while city agencies overseeing schools and shelters still struggle to communicate, leaving student data siloed.
At PS 446, 28 percent of students have some kind of disability, and a quarter of students with special needs are considered emotionally disturbed. The school has seven classes for students with different levels of need, but Dunn said the school still needs more funding to properly serve those children.
Busing for students living in domestic violence shelters is available, but advocates said the family must proactively request transport because there is no existing agreement between agencies to share data on students living in those shelters. For children in Department of Homeless Services shelters, on the other hand, students are automatically matched with busing routes when they are placed in shelters.
At PS 294, one family in a shelter in midtown Manhattan was offered busing, but the child’s pickup time is 6:15 a.m., two hours before school starts. Another family living in a Harlem shelter was provided busing that picks up at 9:30 a.m., more than an hour after the school day begins. The child’s mother is eligible for a subsidized Metrocard from the school, but having to bring her children to school by subway means that she is often late for work.
Mirta Rosales, the parent coordinator at PS 188, says busing services for students in temporary housing have “improved a lot” over the last few years. But some students are still waking up at 4 a.m. to commute to the school, even from the outer reaches of Staten Island to the Lower East Side. And middle school students at PS 188 are not eligible for busing, though their younger siblings can be bused to school.
Doubled-up families often live with family or friends to avoid shelters, but that sometimes excludes them from services offered to children living in shelters, like attendance teachers and coaches who are staffed in those shelters. The city provides Metrocards for parents and children who are doubled up, and provides bus service when available, but doubled-up students are not guaranteed busing like their peers in shelters.
“Those children don’t even have the little bit of support that students in shelters do,” said Laurenceau, the community schools director at PS 294.
Navigating doubled-up living situations can also be delicate for schools. Three families at PS 294 are sharing a single apartment nearby and need specific supports from the school, Laurenceau said, while another mother living with her family was offended when school leaders asked if she and her child needed any extra help.
City officials said they are connecting more doubled-up children to the Department of Homeless Services’ HomeBase program, which provides help for families at risk of losing their homes, through events at schools.
But when communication breaks down between city agencies, it’s easy for children to fall through the cracks.
The few schools with the largest homeless populations are tasked with navigating the labyrinth of agencies responsible for supporting them and homeless students in runaway and homeless youth shelter, including the Department of Education, Department of Homeless Services, Administration for Children’s Services, Human Resources Administration, and Department of Youth and Community Development.
Coordination between school leaders and shelter staff is strong in some schools but lacking in others, and principals said frequent turnover among shelter employees makes it difficult to make lasting relationships. Some shelters do not have educational liaisons in the first place.
“One place where [the administration] definitely could have done more,” United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said in an interview, is “force those agencies to work with each other. They do not like working with each other.”
A good place to start, Mulgrew said, would be to cluster social services near schools with especially high homeless populations.
Dunn said having services closer to her school would help solve some of her most pressing problems.
“Why isn’t there a PATH in Brooklyn?” she asked.
Fariña said she wants the Department of Education to establish “a lot more alliances with other city agencies,” and said she’s already “started doing that.”
She said speaks with HRA commissioner Steve Banks
“all the time.”
Herrera said the department has recently improved its data-sharing system with the Department of Homeless Services so that education officials are immediately notified when a child enters a shelter or changes shelter sites.
“We want to reduce the hurdles homeless students face by providing support to them where they live, while working with families on a path to permanent housing," Lauren Gray, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services, said in a statement.
THE CHARTER SCHOOL SECTOR HAS ABSORBED some of the additional homeless students, as shelters have swelled over the last two years.
New York City's charters educate a smaller percentage of homeless students than the city does overall, but its numbers have grown to approach the citywide average.
James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, said almost seven percent of students attending the city’s 216 charters are homeless, though the city’s four largest charter networks have varying rates of homeless students.
At KIPP, which has the highest special education enrollment of the city’s networks, about eight percent of students are homeless.
At Success Academy, the city's largest charter network, nine percent of students are homeless. One school, Success Academy Washington Heights, has a 14 percent homelessness rate. Nicole Sizemore, a spokeswoman for Success, said the network has reached out to prospective students at 30 homeless shelters.
Amanda Pinto, a spokeswoman for the Achievement First network, said the network's lottery includes a preference for low-income families. The network's social workers help coordinate services for homeless students, Pinto said, though she could not provide an estimate of how many homeless students are enrolled in Achievement First schools. Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Uncommon Schools, said the network is "exploring adding temporary housing as a preference in our admissions lottery, just like we already do for students who live in public housing and low income students."
Martinez did not have an estimate of how many homeless students are enrolled in Uncommon's schools.
Charters, which have argued for more school space based on their ability to better educate high-needs students, have the flexibility to take even more homeless students, should they see fit. According to local regulations, charters can set aside seats for at-risk students, including homeless children, if they receive approval from their authorizers.
One independent charter, Broome Street Academy in Manhattan, has become a model for education at-risk children. The school sets aside as many as half of its seats for students in foster care, temporary housing, or who are involved in the criminal justice system.
Broome Street’s principal, Barbara McKeon, recently described an infrastructure that would make the charter the envy of many district schools with large homeless populations. Broome Street has five social workers, including one who is tasked solely with handling absenteeism, a staffer who is responsible for coordinating with city agencies, and a team of four guidance counselors.
Some district school leaders who oversee large homeless populations said charters can make their jobs more difficult. When charters do not replace students who leave mid-year with children on the waiting list — a process known as "backfilling" — those students often end up at the district school, increasing the burden on overwhelmed principals.
"We have a lot of students whose parents are enticed by the promise of a charter school," said Russo, the principal of PS 294. But he said “many of those families are back a year later... many special education families are back.”
Asked whether she believes charters should do more to educate homeless children, Fariña said, “I think everyone has to do their fair share of what is morally correct.”> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter
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Source : http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2016/12/citys-efforts-to-support-swelling-homeless-student-crisis-leave-some-behind-107920