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.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.