homeless help

Three things to know about the record number of homeless students in New York City schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose (center) answers questions from lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday.

One in ten New York City students was homeless at some point last school year — a staggering number of vulnerable students who pose a special challenge for schools and city officials.

The rise in homeless students is tied to an overall increase in homelessness in the city, where a record number of people now stay in shelters. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has scrambled to serve this growing population by creating more shelters and affordable housing — though critics say not enough — while his education department focuses on keeping homeless students in school.

At a City Council hearing Wednesday, lawmakers grilled city officials about their strategy for meeting the needs of students in temporary housing, who tend to do worse in class than their peers and miss many days of school.

Here are three big takeaways from the hearing about the city’s homeless students and the administration’s response to this crisis.

There are twice as many homeless students in New York City as total students in Boston

More than 111,500 public school students experienced homelessness last school year, according to state data released this week, or roughly one in ten students in the city’s district and charter schools. Those students may stay in homeless shelters, motels or crammed into friends’ or relatives’ apartments.

That represents a 6 percent increase over the previous year, and is the largest number since the state began keeping records. Overall, roughly one in eight of city students experienced homelessness at some point in the last five years, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

“Homelessness is at a crisis level in this city,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who heads the education committee.

The city is boosting resources at schools with the most homeless students.

The education department is deploying extra programs and services to accommodate more homeless students, but acknowledged there could be room for improvement, top officials said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose said the city is dispatching social workers to 43 elementary schools with high rates of homeless students, an increase from last year. She also pointed to $10.3 million her department has spent on programs like shelter-based reading clubs and hiring staffers whose job is make sure homeless students make it to school.

The city has expanded its network of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families. It also launched a bus service last year for homeless students in grades K-6 so they can stay in the same school even if their families are relocated to distant shelters.

There have been “small signs” that the city’s programs are paying off, Rose told lawmakers after two hours of questioning — before adding that much hard work remains.

“We believe there is an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done,” she said.

The city is attacking the issue, advocates say — but not quickly enough.

Lawmakers peppered education department and homeless services officials with questions about whether the city’s plan is enough for students who struggle with the most severe effects of poverty.

They asked whether there are enough education department staff in shelters, why those staff members must only attain a high school diploma, whether the city could do more to make sure homeless students aren’t regularly bouncing between schools, and why the education department doesn’t offer bus transportation for preschool students in shelters.

At one point, after suggesting the city create a task force to study problems facing students in temporary housing, City Councilman Stephen Levin suggested the city wasn’t moving aggressively enough.

“What you’re describing is the status quo,” he said, “and the status quo is unacceptable.”

Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, said in an interview that the city is moving in the right direction — just not quickly enough.

As an example, she pointed out that more than 150 schools have populations where at least 10 percent of students live in shelters — yet the city is only sending 43 extra social workers to schools with high homeless populations. The city should raise that number to 100, she said.

“The city has taken considerable steps,” Levine said. “But the statistics show the significant need for the city to redouble its efforts.”

money matters

In first meeting since November election results, the board of Regents eyes budget for New York schools

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
New York State capitol

New York’s education policymakers, gathering in Albany this week, are expected to decide how much money they will request for school funding from the state legislature.

Members of the state Board of Regents have spent the past several months discussing where state education dollars are most needed next fiscal year. And while their request will help guide lawmakers as they hash out a spending plan by the April 1 deadline, the final dollar amount is out of the hands of the Regents or other state education department officials.

Last budget cycle, the board requested a funding increase of $1.6 billion, which was lower than what they had asked for the year before. State lawmakers subsequently passed a budget that included a $1 billion increase for education — still significantly short of what the Regents had called for.

“So what they ask is really a matter of their public position, having nothing to do with what the ultimate delivery is going to be from the governor and the legislature,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Once again this year, a core priority for the Regents is increasing funding for “foundation aid,” which is a formula that sends extra dollars to high-poverty school districts and contributes about a third of the state education funding for New York City.

Other budget priorities include focusing on high-quality early childhood education, English language learners and the implementation of the state’s plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, which will determine how the state will support and evaluate schools.

The meeting is the first since the results of November’s election, which shifted control of the New York state legislature to Democrats. Given that many newly-elected state senators are political progressives who campaigned on boosting school funding, the Regents could see an opening to press for more money for schools than they have in the past. But how quickly lawmakers can or will deliver on these promises remains to be seen.

In other business, the Regents will look at a proposal Monday to extend the moratorium that excludes state English and math test scores from metrics used to evaluate New York teachers. Chancellor Betty Rosa announced last month that state education officials want to continue speaking with teachers, principals, and others who may wish to weigh in on the issue — which has long been politically charged — before making any final decisions about the state’s teacher evaluation system.

portfolio push

The City Fund’s next steps: These 7 cities are the focus of the biggest new education player

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Buses head out on their routes at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

A new group that’s raised millions to promote its brand of school reform has begun spending that money in seven cities — and its staff may be planning to try to influence elections, too.

The City Fund has already given grants to organizations and schools in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Newark, Denver, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Nashville, according to one of the group’s founders, Neerav Kingsland. Those grants amount to $15 million of the $189 million the group has raised, he told Chalkbeat.

City Fund staffers have also founded a 501(c)(4) organization called Public School Allies, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat, which Kingsland confirmed. That setup will allow the group’s members to have more involvement in politics and lobbying, activities limited for traditional nonprofits.

The details — some first reported by The 74 on Sunday — offer the latest insight into the ambitions of The City Fund, which is looking to push cities across the U.S. to expand charter schools and district schools with charter-like autonomy.

The $15 million that’s already been spent has mostly gone to local groups, Kingsland said.

In Denver, the recipient is RootED, a nonprofit that launched about a year ago. RootED’s head Nate Easley said his organization has issued roughly $3 million in grants, partially based on money from The City Fund. Some of that has gone to community groups that organized parents to speak out about the city’s superintendent search. Other money has gone directly to charter schools and district schools that are part of Denver’s innovation zones, which mean they are overseen by a nonprofit organization and that teachers can vote to waive parts of the labor contract.

Easley’s approach is consistent with The City Fund’s favored policies, sometimes called the “portfolio model.” In their ideal scenario, parents would be able to choose among schools that have autonomy to operate as they see fit, including charter schools. In turn, schools are judged by outcomes (which usually means test scores). The ones deemed successful are allowed to grow, and the less-successful ones are closed or dramatically restructured.

A version of that strategy is already in place in Denver and Indianapolis. Those cities have large charter sectors and enrollment systems that include both district and charter schools In others, like San Antonio, Atlanta, and Camden, struggling district schools have been turned over to charter operators.

The City Fund’s Newark grant is more of a surprise. Although the district has implemented many aspects of the portfolio model, and seen charter schools rapidly grow since a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Newark hasn’t been a magnet of national philanthropy recently. That may be because the changes there sparked vehement community protest, and the district recently switched to an elected school board.

Charter advocates in Nashville, meanwhile, have faced setbacks in recent years, losing several bitter school board races a few years ago. A pro-charter group appears to have folded there.

Kingsland said The City Fund has given to The Mind Trust in Indianapolis; RootED in Denver; City Education Partners in San Antonio; the Newark Charter School Fund and the New Jersey Children’s Foundation; The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis; and RedefinED Atlanta. In Nashville, The City Fund gave directly to certain charter schools.

The seven cities The City Fund has given to are unlikely to represent the full scope of the organization’s initial targets. Oakland, for instance, is not included, but The City Fund has received a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for work there. The presentation The City Fund made for potential funders earlier this year says the organization expects to reach 30 to 40 cities in a decade or less.

“We will make additional grants,” Kingsland said in an email. “But we don’t expect to make grants in that many more cities. Right now we are focused on supporting a smaller group of local leaders to see if we can learn more about what works and what doesn’t at the city level.”

Chalkbeat previously reported that the Hastings Fund, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Dell Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation were funding the effort. The Walton Family Foundation and the Ballmer Group are also funders, Kingsland said. (The Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

The organization had told prospective donors that it had raised over $200 million. Kingsland said Sunday that $189 million is the correct figure.

As the group expands its influence, it will have to contend with the fact that the portfolio model approach has proven deeply controversial, especially where it has led to the closure of traditional public schools and the expansion of non-unionized alternatives.

It’s gained particular traction in a number of cities, like Newark, Camden, and New Orleans, while they were under state control. In Denver and Indianapolis, cities where the approach has maintained support with elected school boards, supporters faced setbacks in recent elections. Public School Allies may work to address and avoid such political hurdles.

The academic success of the approach remains up for debate. Supporters point to research showing large gains in New Orleans, as well as evidence that in many cities, charter schools outperform district counterparts. Critics note that gains in New Orleans also came with a huge infusion of resources, and that results elsewhere have been more tepid.

Kingsland told The 74 that other approaches to school reform might also have merit — but he’s prepared to stand by his strategy.

“It’s possible that personalized learning, early childhood education, increased public funding, or a deeper focus on integration could be the best way to make public education better. Or perhaps the best way to increase student learning is to address poverty directly by giving poor families more money,” he said.

“While I don’t think our strategy is at odds with any of these approaches, it is possible that our effort is just not the right focus. I don’t think this is true, but it could be.”