cry for help

Four sobering facts about the city’s 86,000 homeless students

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña reads to a group of three- and four-year-olds living at the HELP Bronx Crotona Park North shelter.

New York City’s worsening homelessness crisis is taking a punishing toll on tens of thousands of students.

That was the theme of a City Council hearing Thursday where lawmakers questioned education department officials about how they are supporting the more than 86,000 district and charter school students who live in temporary housing — a 25 percent increase since 2010. Of those students, over 23,000 live in homeless shelters.

“This is a call to action,” said Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson, whose South Bronx district has an especially high rate of student homelessness. “A cry for help.”

In response, officials announced a major new initiative: They are now sending yellow buses to pick up thousands of additional students who live in shelters. The idea is to keep those students from having to switch schools even if they move into a distant shelter, as well as to spare them from long morning commutes on mass transit.

The service will reach 2,500 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, officials said. To offer it, the city created 189 new bus routes, which will transport kids to some 750 schools.

In addition to the bus-service announcement, several other striking facts about the city’s homeless students emerged at the hearing. Here are four big takeaways.

1. Homelessness is seriously harmful to children.

Whether a child is staying in a homeless shelter, “doubled up” in an apartment with multiple families, or sleeping outside, the consequences can be grave.

Homeless children go hungry at twice the rate of other children, get sick four times more often, and are three times more likely to suffer from emotional and behavioral problems compared to children who live in stable housing, according to research cited at the hearing.

Those students often struggle in school. Students living in shelters were far more likely than their peers to miss school and to be suspended, according to an analysis of 2013-14 school year data by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

Only about one in ten of those students passed the 2014 state English exams, the analysis found, compared to about 30 percent of students who live in permanent housing.

2. Homelessness hits some students harder than others.

The vast majority of students living in shelters are black or Hispanic, while most of those in shared housing are Hispanic or Asian.

Young students are most likely to be homeless. More than a third of the city’s homeless students were in pre-kindergarten through second grade in the 2013-14 school year.

Homeless youth living on their own face especially serious risks, as do lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender young people who are homeless. The LGBT population accounts for a disproportionate number of homeless youth, and they are at a greater risk of bullying, sexual assault, HIV infection, and mental health problems.

3. It also hits some schools harder than others.

Most homeless students are clustered in a small number of schools.

In 2013-14, just one-third of city schools served nearly 70 percent of all students who live in shelters or shared housing, according to the IBO.

Those schools, however, do not necessarily get extra funding to meet those students’ many needs. Instead, all schools that receive federal Title I money because they serve a large share of high-needs students are told to set aside $100 of that funding for each student in temporary housing, according to the IBO.

But that “$100 could not be stretched beyond a school uniform, sweatshirt, or backpack,” the IBO’s education policy analyst Liza Pappas said at the hearing.

4. “Temporary” housing can be anything but.

The IBO found that many students living in shelters or doubled-up housing had been staying there for more than one year.

About two-thirds of students living in a shelter in 2013-14 had been in that same situation for at least one of the previous three school years, according to the IBO. For students in shared housing, the rate was 62 percent.

“The data suggest that for at least some students,” Pappas said in her testimony, “these ‘temporary’ housing arrangements are long-lived.”

Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.