It is so easy to attack the public schools for failing to solve society’s intractable problems. For twenty years, that has been the strategy of test-and-punish school accountability. As an incentive to get everybody to work harder and smarter, punishments have been prescribed—fire the principal, fire the teachers, close the school, charterize the school. Another assumption has been that governance changes—privatizing schools, opening charters, expanding school choice—would address the needs of children and families. The ideology has said that lack of the freedom to choose is the problem.
Elizabeth Harris reports this week for the NY Times that a serious underlying problem for children in the New York City Schools is unrelated to teachers-not-trying. And this problem cannot be addressed by a school choice system where high schools in NYC no longer have zoned attendance catchment areas and where vulnerable parents now have to play a complicated game to apply for places in the city’s middle and high schools. The problems are much deeper and among them has been rapidly growing homelessness. In a school district that serves over a million students, the enormous scale of family homelessness, the challenges for families in the homeless shelters, and the difficulty of coordinating services at school for homeless students have become overwhelming.
Harris covers a new report, written for the Independent Budget Office of New York City by Liza Pappas, Not Reaching the Door: Homeless Students Face Many Hurdles on the Way to School. Pappas describes a rapidly growing problem: “There was a 25 percent increase in the number of temporarily housed youth attending schools run by the city’s education department from school year 2010-2011 through 2013-2014, when the number totaled roughly 83,000.” “Thirty-four percent of city students in temporary housing identified as living in homeless shelters, while 58 percent said they are doubled up… An additional 8 percent awaited foster care placement or resided in other temporary housing situations (for example, hotels/motels, cars, parks,public spaces, abandoned property, and on the streets). In total, the number of students in temporary housing had increased by 25 percent since the 2010-2011 school year.”
According to the new report, school attendance problems are greatest for the children of families in the shelters not for the children in families doubled-up: “In 2013-2014, the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) placed families with school-aged children in close to 200 shelters with different service models including Tier II shelters, cluster sites (previously referred to as scattered or scatter sites), converted hotels and motels, and housing for survivors of domestic violence. Tier II shelters provide housing and services to 10 or more families. Cluster sites provide shelter in privately owned residential buildings that can house both private rent-paying tenants and DHS clients. Participating landlords are required only to provide shelter, not social services. Concerned about the poor conditions and lack of services, the city has pledged to end the use of cluster sites to shelter the homeless. In school year 2014-2015, the city also used commercial hotels that serve paying guests as well as those placed by city agencies. DHS has resumed placing families in commercial hotels as an emergency measure due to shortages elsewhere in the system.”
In her NY Times report, Harris explains how homelessness undermines school achievement: “The key issue is getting to school. Children living in shelters attend school significantly less than other students… Two-thirds of students living in shelters were either ‘chronically absent’ or ‘severely chronically absent’ in 2013-2014; children in the second group attended school less than 80 percent of the time… (D)uring the 2014-15 school year, only about half of homeless families were placed in the same borough as their youngest child’s school…. The figure represents a drop of 30 percentage points since 2011. Increasingly, families are being moved further from the neighborhoods they know, and from family and friends who might be able to help them, while facing long commutes to get to school. Such moves leave parents with an excruciating choice: keep their children in a familiar school and commit untold hours spent commuting, or uproot the children further and enroll them in a school closer to the shelter. And because families are often required to move from one shelter to another—sometimes with as little as 24 hours notice… children can be bounced repeatedly from one new school to the next.” Harris adds that in one recent school year, “almost 1,500 homeless children attended three or more schools, a phenomenon that is rarely observed among the permanently housed.”
Pappas’ report describes the steps that must be taken to ensure that parents are not required to keep their children out of school for several days while the family is processed at a downtown office for admission to a homeless shelter. Families must also be taught their right, under the McKinney Vento law, to keep their children in their “school of origin.” Harris adds that more staff are needed in the schools to coordinate services for homeless students. In 2013-2014, “there were 117 family assistants in the Education Department’s Students in Temporary Housing program, whose duties include helping families navigate the enrollment process and providing transportation to school. Those 117 workers were responsible for almost 30,000 school-age children, or an average of 256 each. The starting salary for a family assistant is $13.22 an hour.” The need for more money is obvious. Harris adds that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is increasing funding to help families in the shelters navigate the challenge of keeping their children in school: “The city is hiring attendance teachers, who keep track of absentees, to work in 23 shelters and sending social workers to 32 schools that serve large shelter populations. It has set aside $10.3 million to fund initiatives like helping families in shelter navigate the middle-and high-school application process.”
Pappas’ longer report tracess the impact of homelessness on schools and classrooms: “Overwhelmingly educators interviewed for this study said that transience made it extremely difficult to support the educational success of students in temporary housing. Students arrived in the middle of the year, at the end of the year; sometimes they left and returned. Attendance teachers interviewed pointed to instances when students would ‘disappear’; it was not uncommon, as an attendance teacher at School 5 in Manhattan stated, to observe families who have been in and out of shelters and children who ‘have not returned to school in over a month.’ Often the school would have no way to locate the family—no working number and no new address—to check on the child’s well-being or to officially discharge the student from the school roster if the family had indeed moved. None of the principals who participated in this study knew to contact the DOE staff member who could look up students’ information in the DHS data system CARES to see if perhaps the student and family were living in another shelter.”
Certainly better coordination between the Department of Homeless Services and the school district must occur. However, the sheer size and complexity of the problem is overwhelming along with the expense of addressing it. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond names a very basic reality: “Residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block. But poor families enjoy little of that because they are evicted at such high rates.” (p. 296)
In our nation’s largest school district, in New York City, homelessness undermines the stability of children, families, schools, and communities. The public schools alone, of course, are being blamed for low test scores.