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.’”

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.