When Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, spoke in Cleveland last month, he began his address with these words that introduce one of the book’s final chapters: “The home is the center of life. It is a refuge from the grind of work, the pressure of school, and the menace of the streets. We say that at home, we can ‘be ourselves.’… At home, we remove our masks. The home is the wellspring of personhood. It is where our identity takes root and blossoms, where as children, we imagine, play, and question, and as adolescents, we retreat and try. As we grow older, we hope to settle into a place to raise a family or pursue work… In languages spoken all over the world, the word for ‘home’ encompasses not just shelter but warmth, safety, family—the womb. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘home’ was often used in place of ‘mother.’ The Chinese word jia can mean both family and home. ‘Shelter’ comes from two Old English words: scield (shield) and truma (troop), together forming the image of a family gathering itself within a protective shell.” (Evicted, p. 293)
When children lack a permanent home, the upheaval in their personal lives affects their schools. Some of the details emerge in new reporting from New York City’s public schools. New York City’s 1,800 public schools serve 1.1 million students. Last week the NY Times‘ Elizabeth Harris reported: “More than 111,500 New York City students were homeless at some point last year, whether they were staying in a shelter, in a hotel or with family and friends… The upheaval of homelessness means those children are often anxious and traumatized, and that their parents are as well. Many of them travel long distances from where they sleep to school in the morning, leaving them exhausted before the day begins. Drained and frightened, they bring all of that with them to school… The (city’s education) department said that during the 2016-17 school year, homeless students accounted for 13 percent of all suspensions….”
A report last month from Advocates for Children of New York on homelessness among the school district’s students puts the size, scope, and meaning of the challenges for children and for the school district in perspective: “If these students made up their own school district, it would be one of the thirty largest districts in the nation, with twice the number of students as the entire Boston public school system. In New York City, students in temporary housing have worse educational outcomes than their permanently housed peers…. Outcomes are particularly bleak for students living in New York City shelters—38,000 students during the 2016-2017 school year. For example, during the 2015-2016 school year: 53% of NYC students living in shelters were absent on 20 or more school days—missing the equivalent of one month of school. Only 15% of third through eighth grade students living in shelters scored proficiently in reading. Only 12%… in math.”
Advocates for Children explains: “Homelessness can create a chaotic living environment where students are exposed to high levels of stress. In addition to the trauma of housing loss, children may have been exposed to other traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, which is now the primary driver of homelessness in New York City. Homelessness uproots children from their systems of support and care, which may include relatives, friends, teachers, service providers, medical providers, and mental health providers. Families who are homeless must balance competing priorities including juggling multiple social services appointments and the search for permanent housing. These stressors exacerbate the challenges that children living in poverty already face. While school can serve as a key source of stability for students, the City places most families in shelters far outside their neighborhood. Last year, only 50% of families were placed in the same borough… where their youngest child had been attending school prior to the family entering shelter. As a result, families must decide between long commutes to school and transferring schools.”
Everyone wants better services for homeless children, to reduce their trauma, reduce chronic absence and cut the number of disciplinary problems and suspensions. Coordination between the school district and the city’s enormous social service bureaucracy is chronically difficult. And the needs of homeless children compete for budget dollars with the needs of all kinds of other students. What is clear is that the magnitude and rapid growth of homelessness in NYC have complicated the district’s capacity to respond. In mid-March, the NY Times’ Elizabeth Harris reported: “After rising steadily for about five years, the number of homeless students in New York City public schools jumped up in the 2015-16 school year to the somber threshold of 100,000 students. Then it took another leap: More than 111,500 students were homeless at some point during the 2016-17 school year… The education department has rules and employees in place, both in schools and in shelters, to try to minimize student absences. But the comptroller’s office found that in many cases, protocols weren’t followed, seemingly because those charged with trying to keep children in schools were overwhelmed. During the 2015-16 school year, there were 110 family assistance workers responsible for helping the 32,243 students in city shelters—giving them an average caseload of 293 children each.”
In addition to placing education staff in the shelters to help support children’s placement in and adjustment to school, staff at school provide targeted services. Harris describes some of these efforts at Frederick Douglass II middle school, which has been trying to reduce suspensions among homeless students: “Frederick Douglass II has had an additional full-time social worker since last year, and the parent coordinator has attended training on how to better support homeless families. The school has had a mental health clinic on site since the 2015-16 school year.”
This month, Richard A. Carranza replaced recently retired Carmen Farina as the new Chancellor of NYC’s public schools. Advocates for Children urges Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio to increase staffing significantly—appointing a deputy chancellor to address the growing needs of homeless students. Advocates for Children also recommends doubling the number of school social workers and installing at least 50 new school social workers in the city’s shelters to coordinate with school staff to meet children’s needs. NYC’s Comptroller Scott Stringer adds that improvements are needed in the school district’s electronic data system to ensure that school staff can better track students who are chronically absent from school.
It is important for blogs like this one to report on the magnitude of poverty and homelessness in school districts like New York City’s. The No Child Left Behind Act mandated annual achievement testing for all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The law also established sanctions—punishments—for public schools unable quickly to raise scores. So-called failing schools were subjected to a range of turnarounds—fire the principal and teachers—close the school—charterize the school.
None of these so-called “solutions” has addressed the kind of challenge posed by massive homelessness in New York City and across America’s cities. What’s clear in New York City is that many students in the public schools face overwhelming obstacles from social conditions the schools cannot themselves control. Extreme poverty and homeless among students, in turn, pose enormous challenges for teachers, counselors and social workers. How can our society set a universal standard of public school “success” or “failure” when schools in wealthy suburbs and schools in impoverished communities face such disparate circumstances? Our society owes impoverished and homeless students, their families, and their schools far greater support.