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.’”

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.

No thanks

Diet Nope: Colorado’s large districts still keeping diet soda out of high schools

After a state rule change last fall that allowed Colorado high schools to sell diet soda after a seven-year ban, many of the state’s big school districts have decided to stay soda-free.

Officials in six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts — Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, Poudre and Colorado Springs 11 — say there are no plans to allow diet soda sales.

In some cases, such as Boulder, the district’s existing wellness policy already bans the soft drinks. In others, such as Poudre, the superintendent’s cabinet made the decision in the fall. In Denver, the district’s Health Advisory Council has recommended a continued prohibition of diet soda, but the school board hasn’t voted on the recommendation yet.

“We really commend the districts that are strengthening their own policies to continue to disallow diet soda,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for the advocacy group LiveWell Colorado.

Three of the 10 largest districts — Aurora, Jeffco and Adams 12 — haven’t decided yet whether to bring back diet soda. Adams 12 officials say they’re gathering feedback from the district’s health advisory committee, 42 school wellness committees and all building principals. When that process is complete, any proposed changes will go through a policy-making process that ends with a recommendation to the superintendent.

Jeffco administrators say they’ll also collect data and public input before deciding whether to update the district’s wellness policy to ban diet soda. Aurora officials said there’s no timeline for a decision.

The St. Vrain district was the only one that declined to provide information about its diet soda plans.

“At this time, St. Vrain Valley Schools has no comment regarding this topic,” spokesman Matthew Wiggins wrote via email.

The diet soda issue popped up last summer shortly after new federal rules came out governing certain types of school food. Under those rules, diet soda can be sold to high-schoolers from vending machines and school stores. Colorado’s stricter rules — in place since 2009 — ban all types of soda in schools.

But officials at the state education department who brought the proposed rule change to the State Board of Education said the change would better align state and federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Regular soda is still banned in schools because it exceeds maximum calorie limits under both sets of rules.

In August, and again in September, the State Board of Education voted 4-3 along party lines to change Colorado’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” and allow diet soda in high schools. Republican members in favor of the rule change said the seven-year ban hadn’t cut obesity and that it’s the job of parents not schools to ensure kids make healthy choices.

A coalition of health groups, including LiveWell Colorado, lamented the decision, arguing that diet soda has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water.

Kurz said with the recent change in the state board’s composition — Democrats now hold a majority — it’s possible a vote now would go in favor of a diet soda ban. Still, with lots of big education issues looming, she doesn’t expect the board to take up the issue again.