Number of Homeless Public School Students Tops 101,000 in New York City

Advocates for Children of New York just reported that “more than 101,000 New York City students experienced homelessness in 2020-21.” The NYC public schools serve over a million students, and the number of homeless students is, once again this year, approximately 10 percent of the district’s student population. “Last year marked the sixth consecutive school year that more than 100,000 New York City students experienced homelessness.”

Advocates for Children describes homeless students’ living conditions in New York City: “Last year, as the pandemic raged and most students continued to learn remotely, nearly 28,000 of them did so while living in New York City’s shelters, and approximately 65,000 lived ‘doubled-up’ with friends or family, staying temporarily with others in overcrowded housing.  An additional 3,860 students were unsheltered last year, living in cars, parks, or abandoned buildings. While the total number of students identified as homeless was 9% lower than in 2019-20, some of this decline is likely attributable to the drop in overall public school enrollment (3.3%),  as well as the difficulty schools experienced identifying students whose housing situation changed while they were learning remotely.”

It is hard for most of us to grasp the challenges for a school district struggling to serve such a large group of students experiencing poverty and homelessness.  As we consider the logistical issues, we can better grasp why concentrated poverty is such an enormous barrier to student achievement.  A longer report and set of recommendations for New York City’s Mayor-Elect Eric Adams exposes the implications of student homelessness for academic engagement: “Even before the pandemic, students experiencing homelessness—85% of whom are Black or Hispanic—faced tremendous obstacles to success in school.  For example, in 2019, only 29% of students experiencing homelessness in grades 3-8 were reading proficiently, 20 percentage points lower than the rate for their permanently housed peers, and only 61% of students who were homeless graduated high school in four years, 18 percentage points lower than students who are permanently housed.”

Thirty-nine New York City organizations joined Advocates for Children last week to release a set of recommendations for improving coordination of services for children and adolescents whose families are homeless.  The report begins with the recommendation that Mayor-Elect Adams should pull together an interagency initiative to manage the problem—including the City’s Department of Education, Department of Homeless Services, Human Resources Administration, Department of Youth and Community Development, and the Administration for Children’s Services.

Here is the list of recommendations that follow:

  • “Improve school attendance… During the pandemic, students in shelter had strikingly low attendance, significantly lower than any other group of students…
  • “Increase shelter placements closer to where children attend school. The City places more than 40% of families in a shelter in a different borough from their child’s school. This practice leads to long commutes, unnecessary school transfers, school absences, and barriers to participation in after-school and sports activities…
  • “Revamp city, shelter, and social service agency protocols and policies to take into account the educational needs of children… The average length of stay in shelter spans two school years… The City should… revisit policies that have a harmful impact on children. For example, the lengthy and burdensome shelter eligibility process that can take weeks to complete often results in children missing school and experiencing added instability and trauma…
  • “Bridge the digital divide. During the pandemic, many students in shelter could not access remote learning because their shelters did not have Wi-Fi or sufficient cellular reception for the iPads provided by the Department of Education…. While the City finally installed WiFi in family shelters, the City will need to maintain connectivity and ensure it is sufficient for students to participate in online learning….
  • “Improve access to academic and social-emotional support… For example, as the Department of Education develops plans to use federal COVID-19 relief funding for supplemental programming, the City must prioritize students who are homeless….
  • “Increase access to early childhood education and services… The City should work to increase enrollment among children who are homeless in early childhood education programs, including 3-K, Pre-K, EarlyLearn, Head Start, and preschool special education programs…
  • “Improve access to special education services… Thirty percent of students in shelter have Individualized Education Programs entitling them to special education services…. But research shows that NYC students who are homeless receive IEPs later than permanently housed students, missing out on services during the early years….
  • “Improve language access for families and supports for English Language Learners… The City should ensure that families who are homeless receive school-related documents and information in their primary language and have access to translation and interpretation… (and) ensure that English Language Learners who are homeless get the language instruction and the support they have the right to receive…
  • “Expand opportunities for students who are homeless to participate in after-school and summer programs…  Many students who are homeless attend schools far from where they live, but bus service is available only at the end of the school day—not following after-school programs… In addition, students who switch school mid-year may find that the after-school program at their new school or near their new temporary housing is already fully subscribed. The City should take steps to address these barriers….”

Advocates for Children and the coalition it has assembled emphasize one final recommendation as urgently important: “Ensure every shelter has staff qualified and equipped to support students’ educational needs starting by hiring 150 shelter-based Department of Education community coordinators… Currently there are 117 Department of Education Family Assistants assigned to help families in shelter, a number that has not grown over the past decade even though the number of school-aged children in shelter has increased by thousands of students, and Family Assistants must divide their time between multiple shelter sites. The Family Assistant title is a very low-paying position ($28,000 for 10 months), making it hard to recruit and retain staff who have the skills needed to help families navigate NYC’s complex school system.”

In the nation’s largest school district, there are no quick or easy solutions to managing the needs of 101,000 children whose families lack stable housing.

Exploding Inequality and Poverty: We Got the “Failing” Schools Narrative Wrong and Failed to See the Real Problem

Two articles published this week make interesting companions.

The first is Jack Schneider’s post—published in the Washington Post as part of Valerie Strauss’s column: How Are America’s Public Schools Really Doing?  Schneider, of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, explores the fact that widespread public perception of America’s public education system tanked after No Child Left Behind labeled an ever-increasing number of schools as failing every year.  So-called failing schools were the ones that couldn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress on what we now know was a crazy and unrealistic timeline.  It became apparent, as the 2014 deadline approached when all public schools were supposed to make every child proficient or be labeled “failing,” that almost every school in America would have been received the label except that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education began granting the states waivers from what had become a ridiculous expectation.

Schneider describes what became a widely believed narrative: “(T)he emergence of this popular belief (in the failure of our schools) may illustrate the triumph of rhetoric rather than an actual shift in school quality… New lows were established in 2007 and 2008, as the failures of No Child Left Behind began to clearly reveal themselves, before confidence fell to 29 percent in 2012, the year the federal government began issuing waivers form NCLB’s accountability mechanisms… then to an all-time low in 2014, at 26 percent.”

Schneider shows, however, that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress in both language arts and math remained relatively flat, in fact growing very slightly between the 1970s and 2012.  Schneider concludes: “(I)t seems that national reform rhetoric has driven the decline in perceptions of school quality.  For the past several decades, Americans have been inundated with messages about a crisis in public education.”

Having rejected the narrative of widespread public school failure, Schneider reminds us that we do have an education problem, but we’ve chosen to ignore it as we listened to the wrong narrative: “But sweeping, large-scale reform is hardly the remedy for what ails our most vulnerable schools—the schools where our poorest and least advantaged students are all so often concentrated together. Disruption, which is so highly lauded in the private sector, is exactly what those schools don’t need. Instead, what they need is courageous policy addressing issues like school integration and compensatory funding… Instead of telling a largely untrue story about a system in decline—a story that absolves us of any personal responsibility—we might begin telling a different story: about a system that works.  It works to deliver a high-quality education to those we collectively embrace. And it works in a different way for those we have collectively refused. When a school fails, it is because we have failed.”

Schneider’s column is dated on the same day as Eliza Shapiro’s shocking story in the NY Times about the very students Schneider worries about, the students our society fails to embrace. The headline on Shapiro’s story is a shocker, although anybody who has noticed the price of housing in places like New York City or San Francisco or Seattle or Boston shouldn’t be a bit surprised: Homeless in New York Public Schools Is at a Record High: 114,659 Students. Shapiro explains: “Tonight, about one out of every 10 students in New York City will sleep in a homeless shelter or in the homes of relatives. That’s more children than at any other time since city records have been kept. In the morning, those same children will fan out across the city to go to school, some crossing multiple boroughs to get there.”  Here are some of the facts: “There are about 1.1 million children in the city’s public schools in total.” “There are more homeless students in New York City than people in Albany.” “At 144 public schools, a third of the children are homeless.” “In one Bronx school district, 10,804 students are homeless.” “For every 1,660 homeless students, there’s roughly 1 social worker.” “(T)he number of students in temporary housing has ballooned to 114,659 students as of last spring, from 69,244 children in 2010.”

Shapiro explains that Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city have struggled to address this problem which has overwhelmed the city’s institutions: “The city first earmarked $10.3 million for homeless students in 2016, and increased spending on social workers and other services for homeless students to $13.9 million last year, with the City Council pitching in about another $2 million from its own budget.  For perspective, the Department of Education’s total budget for the current school year is $32.3 billion.  The amount set aside for services pays for about 70 social workers—or roughly one social worker for every 1,660 homeless students. The funding also pays for more after-school programs and additional staff to help homeless families apply to schools. In addition, the city started to send students in kindergarten through sixth grade who were living in homeless shelters to school by bus in 2016.”  Richard Carranza, the NYC Schools Chancellor, has announced that the school district is “bringing this work under the Office of Community Schools to address key challenges students and families face.”

Homeless students are not purely a school problem, but our society has neither actively chosen to connect the issues around housing and health care and poverty that converge in the lives of these public school students nor considered how to address the families’ challenges outside of school. The children’s needs must, of course, be addressed by their schools. Shapiro describes Meghan Dunn, the principal of Public School 446 in Brooklyn: “Last year, Ms. Dunn said she got a call from a mother who was injured in a nearby homeless shelter and needed surgery.  But when the mother was forced to find another shelter, her four children, all of whom attended P.S. 446, had to figure out a way to travel to the Bronx to apply for a new placement at the city’s sole intake center for homeless families… Ms. Dunn sent one of her social workers to the shelter to help arrange a paid taxi ride to bring the injured mother and her children across the city, but the four students still missed several days of school. That was one of many emergency situations that Ms. Dunn said she dealt with that week.”

Ironically, although, “New York City is arguably the philanthropic center of the world… the philanthropic arm of the Frankfurt, Germany-based Deutsche Bank is the only organization that has given more than $1 million to specifically support homeless students in recent years.”