The homeless crisis in New York City’s schools

The share of homeless students in New York City schools has risen significantly.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

When Meghan Dunn was a teacher at a public school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, she had no idea which, if any, of her students struggled with homelessness.

Today at PS 446 Riverdale Avenue Community School, the school she founded in Brownsville and where she now serves as principal, she has a much better picture. Out of the 375 students who attend her school, one in five is homeless.

Helping those students takes a lot of extra work on her part and on the part of her teachers. “All of my staff understands that you are both an educator and you are kind of a social worker,” Dunn said.

They take a different approach to challenges in the classroom. When a child comes in unable to read or to even follow protocol for going to the bathroom, the staff’s reaction is not to reprimand or discipline but to mentor. “It just means someone hasn’t taught you how to do it so far,” Dunn explained. “So we’re going to teach you how to do it, because these are all skills you need to be successful. They’re not deficits, they’re just opportunities for growth.”

That takes a lot of effort. “These things are really easy to say, but they’re hard to do,” she said.

The good news is that all of her teachers know which students are homeless and are going to need extra assistance. “It’s part of the conversation when it wasn’t previously,” Dunn said.

And many of the staff step up to the challenge, even going beyond the classroom. Dunn noted that every day her gym teacher walks to school with a student to school who wasn’t previously able to get there.

Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness
Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness

Dunn is not alone in dealing with high rates of homelessness in the classroom. More than 100,000 New York City students are homeless this academic year, according to an analysis by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH). That’s an increase of 22 percent over the year before — a jump that is “unprecedented,” Jennifer Erb-Downward, principal policy analyst at ICPH, told ThinkProgress. The figure is more than all students of every financial background enrolled in public schools in Boston and Seattle — combined.

And Dunn’s school isn’t an outlier. At a quarter of New York City school districts, one in five students during the 2014–2015 school year had experienced homelessness at some point in the last five years, according to a report ICPH released in August. For some schools it’s half the student population. “It’s an incredible number of students,” Erb-Downward said.

Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness
Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness

Homelessness takes a huge toll on school performance. Just 18 percent of students experiencing homelessness met proficiency standards for math and 14 percent met the standards for English in the 2014–2015 school year, compared to 65 percent and 62 percent, respectively, of their peers who had never been homeless or lived in poverty, according to ICPH. The impact also lasts beyond the time a student spends without a home of his or her own: rates of proficiency were about the same for students who were previously homeless but had become housed.

It’s not too hard to see why : living in homelessness is incredibly stressful. “They’re always in fight or flight mode,” said Margaret Crotty, executive director of Partnership with Children, which sends social workers into schools with high shares of homeless students. “The stress becomes toxic.”

Graduation rates are also lower. Just 52 percent of homeless students in the class of 2015 graduated in four years, compared to 72 percent of students with housing.

Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness
Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness

But ICPH’s research does have a silver lining: the organization has been able to pinpoint the factors that feed those graduation rate gaps. Homeless students who lived in a shelter for all four years of high school actually graduated at about the same rate as low-income students in regular housing. That suggests that having a stable place to sleep, whether it’s a family’s own home or not, is an enormous benefit to a student.

Homeless students who had to transfer schools in the middle of the year were a bit less likely to graduate on time, said Erb-Downward. That’s a frequent occurrence: 21 percent of homeless students will move to a different school in the middle of the year, compared to just 9 percent of housed students. The U.S. Department of Education has estimated that each time students change schools, they lose six months academically.

But the biggest factor is whether or not they can get to school at all. Students who were in and out of housing and had to transfer schools yet still showed up to school regularly had similar graduation rates compared to the city’s average. It was those who experienced those things and were also chronically absent who fared the worst.

“It points to an exciting opportunity,” Erb-Downward said. “There are things that can be done to help homeless students not drop out…and graduate in four years.” If educators can focus on helping homeless students, particularly those going through lots of transitions, to keep showing up at school, they can help ensure that those students will graduate.

That’s what social workers from Partnership with Children aim to do. Crotty recalled one student who was working with a social worker from her organization but stopped showing up for counseling. Eventually the social worker tracked down her family and figured out that the student’s mother couldn’t afford to get a metro card to bring her daughter to school. Meanwhile, the student was getting bullied because she couldn’t get her hair done — another side effect of living in crisis. The causes were simple, but they were hidden until the social worker investigated.

Partnership with Children has also found that a lasting, stable relationship with an adult — such as one of its social workers — can be an “antidote,” as Crotty put it, to the chronic stress of homelessness. But the organization still has a small reach: It’s only active in 29 city schools. “It’s a tiny sliver,” she said.

And all of this takes a lot of resources. Dunn noted that she and her staff spent one and a half hours recently in a meeting with a homeless fourth grader who had just come to the school from North Carolina and had had a physical altercation with another student. The meeting took that long because the student kept shutting down emotionally, and the struggle to help him is far from over. “I know this will happen again,” she said. She estimates that it will take a year for him to really adjust and for the teachers to be able to start catching him up academically.

“This takes time,” she said. “This is a marathon, we’re in this for the long run.”

Even so, all of that work could be disrupted and even reversed if he leaves the school in the middle of the year. He’d have to start all over again at a new place. “It would be a tragedy for him,” she said.