Beyond the classroom

Why do New York City’s homeless students struggle in school?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Homeless students travel long distances to school, are forced to switch shelters with less than 24 hours’ notice, and sometimes skip school because they have no place to do laundry, according to a report released Tuesday by the city’s Independent Budget Office.

It comes as the percentage of students living in temporary housing — which includes those living in shared housing or in shelters — increased 25 percent between 2010-11 and 2013-14, though it dropped slightly the following year.

Research has shown that housing instability has an adverse impact on test scores and suspensions rates. This study focuses on attendance, and finds that in 2013-14, only 34 percent of students living in shelters attended school more than 90 percent of the time.

The IBO set out to determine exactly which obstacles are holding students back. Through a series of interviews with roughly 100 school staffers, administrators and families, the report found that constant housing turmoil can have significant — and sometimes surprising — consequences for homeless students.

Here are four obstacles, among many, they discovered:

Jumping from shelter to shelter makes schools a “revolving door.”

“You know, I think my biggest gripe with the system is this whole rotation …There’s a time frame. And I understand that. But at least if there are school-age children, let the time frame be for the year of the school … so that you’re not disrupting the education of those children.” — Brooklyn principal (all names in the report are confidential)

The shelter system forces families to move frequently — and for students, that can mean attending as many as three or four schools in one year, according to the report.

Students are able to stay in their original school under federal law, but switching shelters often makes the travel time too cumbersome to do so. A family’s housing assignment may zigzag between different boroughs all over the city. Sixteen percent of students in temporary housing, and almost a quarter of students in shelters, attended two or more schools in 2013-14.

Switching schools has a detrimental impact on both students and schools, the report finds. Principals of schools with a high proportion of students in temporary housing describe their school as a “revolving door,” where they cannot work with students very long. Students also struggle to adjust to new homes, teachers and friends, explained school staff.

The burden of getting to school holds students back from learning.

“It is also not good for the student to be waking up at 5:00 in the morning to travel two-and-a-half hours to get here … they’re getting here everyday at 11:00 a.m … they’re missing half the school day.” — Manhattan principal

For those who do not switch schools, getting to class is often a real hardship. Students living in shelters may have to travel hours to get to school, the report found, spending time on busses or the subway when they could be sleeping. Students with these long commutes might arrive extremely late or not make it to school at all.

Of the 12 school principals interviewed for the report, 10 cited the distance between a family’s shelter and the school as a major stumbling block. Problems with attendance are heightened in bad weather or when families are busy, the report found. Meanwhile, the problem appears to be getting worse. There was a decline from 2011 to 2015 in the percentage of families able to get housing assignments based on the location of their youngest child’s school. Within those four years, the number dropped from 83.3 percent to 52.9 percent.

Travel distance may contribute to the high rates of chronic absenteeism among students in temporary housing. Students who live in shelters, in particular, are more than three times as likely to be “severely chronically absent” than students in permanent housing, which means they attend school less than 80 percent of the time.

Students skip school to sit in an office while their parents fill out paperwork seeking shelter.

“They are sometimes sitting two or three days in PATH … it’s two or three days that the child can’t leave [PATH] because if the child leaves then [the family is] not counted. And if they’re not counted, then they become ineligible [for housing placement] and then they have to start all over.” — Brooklyn parent coordinator

In order to apply for temporary housing, families have to show up at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing center (PATH) in the Bronx with their children. Often, the process can take days.

Families are supposed to be able to send students back to school after their first day’s appointment, but those participating in the IBO’s focus groups were unaware of this rule. (The city has also changed the process so children don’t need to come when families reapply for shelter within 30 days.)

While there is a part-time Department of Education official at PATH, not a single parent in the IBO’s report met with that staff member to discuss schooling.

Aspects of life in a shelter — like a lack of laundry facilities — can prevent students from being successful in school.

“Forget about the shelter don’t have laundry. None of these [shelters] are near laundry. Forget about not having the money for yourself. Who’s going to watch your kids? So you’re also paying for transportation for everyone to go do laundry. So the burden is on you.” — Brooklyn parent

Living in a shelter can also deprive families of basic needs, hampering school success. For example, families often do not have access to laundry and are embarrassed to send their children to school with dirty clothes.

They also lack healthy food options and “uniformly expressed disgust” with food served in certain shelter cafeterias, the report found. The result is that many homeless students go to school hungry, according to the report, which affects their ability to concentrate on schoolwork.

Moving into a shelter can also take an emotional toll on students. Parents and principals noted that it decreased students’ motivation to attend school. One teacher recalled a conversation with a fifth-grade student who wanted to get a job instead.

“He says to me, ‘I need to get a job.’ I said, ‘No, what you need to do is finish school,’” the teacher recounted. “[He replied] ‘Well, maybe I can get a part-time job.’ [I said,] ‘You’re 12. You can’t get a part-time job, baby.’ [He said,] ‘Well, Mommy needs my help.’”

Funding fight

Colorado poised to slash funding for controversial student health survey

Two years after a controversial student health survey sparked protracted debate at the State Board of Education, questions about the survey’s value have moved to the state legislature — and could mean a loss of $745,000 in state funding for the biennial data collection effort.

Funding for the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which comes primarily from the state’s Marijuana Tax Cash Funds, was not included in the proposed state budget earlier this spring and may not return despite requests by the state health department to restore the money.

The health survey is given to a sample of Colorado middle school and high school students in scores of districts every other year. It asks about topics ranging from nutrition to risky behavior, and proponents say it’s crucial for tracking trends and crafting interventions when trouble spots arise.

In addition to $745,000 in state dollars, the survey is funded with $89,000 in federal money. State health department officials said determining whether the survey could continue in a slimmed-down form if state money is stripped away depends on the federal budget.

“The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey is the only comprehensive survey on the health and well-being of Colorado youth,” Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement. “Without funding, we won’t be able to provide the kind of credible health information schools, community groups and local public health agencies need to improve the health of the young people they serve.”

The state Senate is expected this week to debate the state’s budget. The House will debate the budget after the Senate completes its review.

The health survey became the focus of a debate by the State Board of Education and dueling opinions from the state attorney general’s office in 2015 after some parents raised concerns about the explicit nature of questions on sexual behavior, drugs and suicide.

In addition, critics argued that parents should have to give advance written permission — called active consent — in order for their children to take the survey. Over the survey’s 26-year history, most districts have chosen passive consent, which means students are asked to take the survey unless parents sign a form opting them out.

Ultimately, neither the state board nor State Attorney General Cynthia Coffman mandated substantive changes to the survey or consent rules. State officials emphasized throughout the controversy that the survey is anonymous and voluntary. After the state board uproar over the survey, most districts continued to participate.

On Monday, Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who helped write the state’s budget, said of the survey, “I think enough of us felt that it was just intrusive. I just don’t think it collects good data.”

Not all on the budget committee agreed.

“I support the survey,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, a Frisco Democrat. “Our school districts rely on that information for other grant programs. It is possible in the budget process we’re able to restore that.”

Chalkbeat Colorado’s deputy bureau chief Nic Garcia contributed to this report. 

red zone

Traffic pollution: an invisible health risk for dozens of Denver schools

PHOTO: Google Maps - Street View
Interstate 70 is clearly visible from the playground outside Swansea Elementary School in Denver.

Just a few hundred feet from the front doors of Highline Academy Charter School’s southeast Denver campus is Interstate 25, where more than 200,000 vehicles rush by each day.

At Swansea Elementary School in north Denver, kids frolic near the busy Interstate 70 overpass that abuts the playground. Three miles west, at a charter school called STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside, the same highway looms just past a chain link fence next to the school.

The three schools are among 29 in Denver Public Schools — 10 of them charters — that sit near high-traffic roads and the invisible air pollution those routes generate daily. Experts say such pollution can stunt lung development, aggravate asthma and contribute to heart disease, but there’s little public awareness about the problem and mitigation efforts are sparse.

A new online mapping tool, part of a joint investigative project by two nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, puts the issue in stark relief. Residents across Colorado and the nation can easily check which schools fall into red zones where traffic volume, and the accompanying air pollution, is worst, and orange zones where traffic volume is lower, but still potentially problematic for kids and staff who may spend long hours at their schools.

PHOTO: Center for Public Integrity and Reveal
This screen shot of the mapping tool shows Highline Academy’s proximity to Interstate 25 with a blue pin.

The Center for Public Integrity provided Chalkbeat with raw data for schools with Denver addresses. While most were DPS schools, a couple dozen were schools in neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek, Aurora, Westminster, Mapleton, Sheridan and Jefferson County.

Eleven DPS schools — educating more than 8,000 students — fell into the red zone, which means they sit within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average. Those include charters such as Highline and Strive Prep – Sunnyside, and traditional public schools such as Swansea and Steele elementaries and George Washington, Lincoln and East high schools.

Another 18 district schools, plus one in the Cherry Creek district and one in the Adams 12 district, fall into the orange zone, which includes schools that are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles and more than 500 trucks daily. The 18 DPS schools include two additional STRIVE – Prep locations, two schools inside the downtown administration building and the district’s magnet school for students designated as highly gifted: Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

DPS officials say air pollution resulting from schools’ proximity to busy roadways hasn’t been discussed previously and that mitigation measures — such as high-grade air filters — aren’t in place at most affected schools.

“We haven’t had this conversation before,” said district spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

Sometimes schools end up near busy roadways because that’s where districts can buy cheap land. But population growth, development trends and major transportation projects can also dramatically change the fabric of a school neighborhood. Swansea Elementary, for example, was built in 1957, before I-70 sliced through north Denver in the 1960s.

The problem of traffic-related air pollution near schools is not exclusive to big cities like Denver. It can be found in suburban and rural areas around the state and the rest of the country. Many school districts across Colorado — from Montrose to Steamboat Springs to Greeley — have at least one school within 500 feet of high-traffic routes.

Charters harder hit

The investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, which looked at trends nationwide, found that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be located close to busy roads.
That’s true in Denver, where 22 percent of the district’s charter schools were located near a busy road during the 2014-15 school year, compared to 13 percent of other district schools. Nationwide, about 9 percent of schools are near busy roads, according to the analysis.

Officials at the most impacted Denver charter schools had little to say about the issue of traffic pollution.

Christine Ferris, executive director of Highline Academy, wrote in an email: “We can’t really do much about our location and although it would be obvious to anyone who visits us, having the information highlighted on Chalkbeat isn’t my favorite idea.”

She canceled a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat.

Chyrise Harris, senior director of communications and marketing for the STRIVE Prep charter group, said via email, “STRIVE Prep operates all of its schools in district facilities and works collaboratively with the district to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to a safe, high quality school near them.”

Jessica Johnson, general counsel and director of policy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said in growing cities like Denver there’s limited inventory when it comes to school sites. Charter schools may end up along high-traffic routes because that’s where the chartering district has vacant space and also because such roads provide needed proximity to bus or train stops.

Of the 10 Denver charter schools near busy roads, seven are in district-owned buildings. The three that aren’t are Highline, Cesar Chavez Academy and Justice High School.

While Johnson said being close to busy roads is a fact of life for urban charter schools, she noted the impact of traffic-related air pollution is an important health and wellness issue — one that hasn’t been on the charter community’s radar.

“This isn’t an issue that we’ve seen a lot of research into locally or a lot of conversation on,” she said.

Mitigation measures

Vehicle exhaust contains a variety of harmful components, including small particles, carbon monoxide and carcinogenic compounds. While outdoor areas like school playgrounds and sports fields pose an obvious risk, the air inside buildings can suffer, too, because particles, vapors and gases often seep inside.
High-grade air filters — those rated MERV 16 — can make a big difference. According to the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal investigation, MERV 16 filters installed in California schools caught about 90 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, which are key contributors to traffic-related health problems.

Denver schools use lower-grade filters, those rated either MERV 8 or MERV 10, according to district officials.

Air-conditioning can also help somewhat, allowing schools to keep some pollution at bay by shutting doors and windows in hot weather. Of the 29 DPS schools most impacted by roadway pollution, only four don’t have at least partial air-conditioning. Those are Valverde and Steele elementaries, Polaris at Ebert Elementary and STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside. While a handful of the 29 schools will get additional air-conditioning with funds from Denver’s recent voter-approved bond, those four are not on the list.

Swansea Elementary, the second most impacted Denver school after the southeast Highline Academy location, will be getting short-term and likely longer-term relief from traffic pollution.

Renteria said as part of a project underway now, the school is getting a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system that will include MERV 16 filters. It will also get new doors and windows.

Additionally, a planned highway widening project will convert the current overpass next to Swansea to a covered below-grade route. Research from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests vehicle emissions are lower near below-grade roads with steep walls. The same is true for routes with certain kinds of sound barriers or roadside vegetation.

The city will monitor air quality on Swansea’s grounds during and after construction.

Here is the list of schools classified as “red” or “orange:”

Red Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
Highline Academy (southeast) Denver charter
Swansea Elementary School Denver
STRIVE PREP – Sunnyside Denver charter
Compassion Road Academy Denver
Steele Elementary School Denver
George Washington High School Denver
Respect Academy at Lincoln Denver
Abraham Lincoln High School Denver
College View Elementary School Denver
Valverde Elementary School Denver
East High School Denver

These “red zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average.

Orange Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
STRIVE Prep – Federal Denver charter
Columbian Elementary School Denver
Denver Center for International Studies Denver
Colfax Elementary School Denver
Cheltenham Elementary School Denver
The Odyssey School Denver charter
Contemporary Learning Academy Denver
STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill Denver charter
Cesar Chavez Academy Denver charter
Girls Athletic Leadership School Denver charter
Bruce Randolph School Denver
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Denver charter
Emily Griffith Technical College Denver
Dora Moore ECE-8 School Denver
Justice High School Denver charter
Polaris at Ebert Elementary School Denver
Bromwell Elementary School Denver
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning Denver charter
Challenge School Cherry Creek
North Star Elementary School Adams 12

These “orange zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day and more than 500 trucks on average.