Living the Line

Schools Struggle To Provide for Homeless Students

As the city adds 19 more schools to its list of failing schools, some teachers and city officials are charging that those schools with higher populations of students living in temporary housing are more likely to be on the chopping block.

There are over 16,000 school-aged children living in shelters throughout New York City, according to the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which protects the rights of students who are homeless, a student may be immediately enrolled at any public school where enrollment is sought. However, some argue that certain schools are targeted for these students, dubbing them “shelter feeder schools.” Once a school becomes a shelter feeder school, they believe it is not long until it eventually shuts down.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy of course that school is going to fail, and there are a lot of people who think they wanted the school to fail,” said Councilman Lewis Fidler, who chairs the Youth Services Committee.

The Department of Education (DOE) could not be reached for comment.

Although the Bloomberg Administration has put much support into charter schools as a solution for parents seeking better education, students in shelters are virtually cut out of the city’s growing charter system. Charter schools typically have lotteries in the beginning of a school year and do not admit students throughout the year.

At a recent hearing on alleviating the challenges facing students who are homeless, Councilman Steve Levin, who is on the Education Committee, asked the DOE Deputy Chancellor for Operations Kathleen Grimm if charter schools were required to take students who are homeless at any point in the year. Grimm responded that she did not think there was a way for students to enter once the lottery system was over.

“Charters often are smaller; they are a different type of environment. It seems as if they are not shouldering the responsibility like their neighboring district elementary,” said Levin, to which Grimm responded she would look into the option of charter schools for these students.

For schools placed on the closing list, teachers, administrators and city officials continue to examine the DOE’s reasons for deeming their schools unsatisfactory.


“There was a school in Bushwick that [the Department of Education] wanted to close and they said ‘look at the declining test scores,’ but what they neglected to mention was in the two years prior to that, they had directed all the kids from a local shelter in that school. So it was like 50 percent kids from a shelter and then they were comparing to test scores of the kids who had been in stable housing before,” said Fidler.

The DOE placed Charles H. Houston (PS 332) on the closing list earlier this year due to low parental involvement, high absenteeism, and low-test scores. But according to Vanecia Wilson, 43, a third grade teacher at PS 332, the school was also a “barrier free” school which welcomed every child in the zone, including those with special needs, ESL students, students with severe behavior problems, and those living in shelters.

“We felt that if we were deemed a failing school, then why would we keep getting children who obviously have higher needs,” said Wilson, “but they [at the DOE] weren’t able to answer that either, so we still get them.”

In a report released earlier this year, the Independent Budget Office concluded that “the schools proposed for closing generally have been serving students with greater needs compared with other schools.” These greater needs include special education, English language barriers and students in temporary housing. Four of the schools on the city’s closing list had a student body of 10 percent or more living in temporary housing. PS 332 was listed as having 17 percent of their students in temporary housing.

The school is currently being “phased out,” which means each year until 2013 it loses grades.

There are signs that the city is making an effort to serve the needs of these children. The DOE and the DHS testified to having increased collaboration and communication over the past two years to ensure continuity of education for students living in temporary housing.

The DOE also established content experts, program managers and family assistants to act as liaisons between the DHS and schools in New York City. Family assistants work directly in shelters to inform resident parents of their rights to Title 1 funds, transportation —kindergarten through sixth grade have access to metro cards if they do not attend the zone school or busing if there is a route (five miles and under) available to them—and to any programs for students in temporary housing sponsored by the DOE.

The content experts manage the family assistants, and interact with schools to ensure that schools implement programs catered to students who are homeless and that they disperse the Title 1 funds or other resources to families whom they know are homeless. Program managers develop programs for the students that are either enrichment based—dance and the arts—or academic based. Programs are developed with community-based organizations and with schools.

“You don’t cut off services because a school is closing because that’s when our students need us the most,” said Wayne Harris, a content expert for Brooklyn. “We would increase service like we did to 332, or like we did to [Paul] Robeson when it was on the [chopping] block, because we want to make sure our students who are transient are transitioning well.”

There are at least three family shelters in walking distance of PS 332. The shelters were built about five years ago. When asked if the city, the DOE or the DHS held any trainings or workshops to prepare neighboring schools for the influx of students in temporary housing, Wilson said they did not.

However, according to Harris, the DOE did, in fact, recognize both the proximity of the shelters and the increased number of students in temporary housing, and placed a paid staffer at PS 332 to oversee attendance outreach and to walk students from the shelter to school in the morning. There is also an after school program sponsored by “Opportunities Before And After School For Intellectual Success,” also known as OASIS, which provides enrichment and academic support for these students, he added.

“It’s not unusual for a teacher not to know what’s happening administratively,” said Harris, “depends on the culture at the school.”

Still, despite what ever support may be happening there are signs that it is not enough. There is a significant achievement gap between students in temporary housing and students in permanent housing between grades three through eight, according to a recent analysis by the DOE and New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS). Proficiency on the math exam citywide is 57 percent, and for students in temporary housing it is only 38 percent. Proficiency on the English language exam citywide was 44 percent and 27 percent for students in temporary housing. And across the city the high school graduation rate for student who are homeless is just 41 percent compared to 61 percent for other students.

Aruna Premi, 23, is one of the success stories. She was homeless in high school but graduated third in her class from Erasmus Hall high school and then went on to graduate from Queens College. She is now an administrative assistant at NYS-TEACHS. Still, she struggled with feelings of worthlessness when living in a shelter, and empathizes with teachers at “feeder schools” who she believes lack the resources to really fulfill the needs of students.

“They can’t go around punching themselves saying, ‘I did a bad job, this kid didn’t get into college, this kid dropped out, this kid got pregnant, this kid still lives in a shelter, I’m a complete failure for letting these kids fail,’ when it’s the system that’s letting these kids fail — the housing system, the shelter system, the poverty system,” said Premi, through tears.

In the meantime, one question still remains: where will students who are homeless go now that their school has closed.

For Councilman Fidler the answer is simple. “The homeless kids will go to the next feeder school,” he said.

For a link to the longer story, click here.