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.’”

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”