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.’”

Not long for this world

Denver teen pregnancy prevention organization to close its doors at the end of the year

PHOTO: freestocks.org

A Denver-based nonprofit focused on teen pregnancy prevention and youth sexual health will close its doors at the end of 2017 after losing two major grants.

Andrea Miller, executive director of Colorado Youth Matter, announced the news in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.

The organization, begun in the 1980s as a volunteer-run group, provides teacher training and assistance in picking sex education curricula for 10 to 25 Colorado school district a year.

Miller said she’s hopeful other organizations will pick up where Colorado Youth Matter leaves off — possibly RMC Health, the Responsible Sex Education Institute of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains or the state-run Colorado Sexual Health Initiative.

Colorado Youth Matter’s biggest financial hit came in July when federal officials announced the end of a major teen pregnancy prevention grant mid-way through the five-year grant cycle. That funding made up three-quarters of Colorado Youth Matter’s $1 million annual budget.

“It feels like we’re getting cut off at the knees,” Miller said.

About the same time, the organization lost a family foundation grant that made up another 10 percent of its budget.

Miller, who took the helm of the organization just 10 months ago, said one of her primary goals was to diversify funding, but there wasn’t enough time.

Miller said with a variety of factors playing into the state’s teen pregnancy rates, which have been at record lows in recent years, it’s hard to say what the impact of the organization’s dissolution will be.

She said Colorado Youth Matter has worked successfully with school districts with different political leanings to find the right policies and resources to address the sexual health of their students.

“We have been masters at meeting the school districts where they are,” she said.

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.