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Homelessness in NYC Expands Mission of Schools, Defies Easy Remedies

June 21, 2016

A recent NYTmes article by Elizabeth Harris described the daunting challenges one public school in NYC faces in trying to educate its students, and underscored the oversimplified notion most of the public has regarding the “mission” of its schools. “Where Nearly Half the Students are Homeless, School Aims to be Teacher, Therapist, and Even Santa” describes the uphill battle PS 188 faces in its efforts to educate the 500 students attending its school on a given day. Since roughly half of its population is homeless, the turnover in population is daunting, but it also exemplifies the challenges NYC public schools face given that “82,514 children in the city’s public schools were either in shelters, temporarily staying with relatives or family friends, or in some other makeshift living situation at some point during the last school year.” To put that number into perspective, the Times noted that that number early matched the number of students in Austin public schools. Or another way to look at it is this: it’s only 7000 fewer students than attend school in all of Vermont!

Given the day-to-day uncertainty about where they will be sleeping or getting their next meal, it is not surprising that schools serving homeless students have more to worry about than test scores and the teachers who serve those students have more to worry about than incomplete homework assignments. As the Times article notes:

Shoes, for example, are not usually on the list of things a school provides. But P.S. 188 distributed hundreds of pairs this school year. It also gave away backpacks and holiday presents, refurbished computers and uniforms. It is installing a washer and dryer for families whose children come to school without clean clothes…

“I would say 80 percent of our kids could benefit from some kind of counseling,” said Jessie Solomon-Greenbaum, who worked as a therapist at P.S. 188 until earlier this year, with a nonprofit group called the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.

Some children are separated from their parents or caregivers, perhaps for reasons related to immigration. Many are surrounded by violence in the community that elevates their sensitivity to danger. There is domestic violence — one of the leading reason families end up in the shelter system, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. There is instability. Nearly two dozen children are in foster care. And for almost all of them, there is poverty.

In a district where 82,000+ children have no address and many are not living with parents or guardians, it is no surprise that schools serving those children are deemed as “failing” since the students they begin the year with are often not the students who are tested in May or June. Given this reality, the Principal at  PS188 has a different definition of success than one based on test scores:

At a school like P.S. 188, what does success look like?

On the standardized state tests taken every year, its scores are flatly disappointing. Only 9 percent of its students met state standards in English last year, compared with 30 percent of students citywide. Just 14 percent of children scored at grade level in math, less than half of the citywide rate of 35 percent.

On annual school surveys, families and teachers give the school and its principal very high ratings. Teachers say they trust the principal and one another. Students say they feel safe and respected, and that they know what their teachers want them to learn. At the Island School, there are outbursts and fights, but the hallways usually feel calm. Children walk from class to class in neat rows, or a rough approximation of them.

To Ms. Ramos (the Principal), when she looks back at the end of the school year and asks herself how the school did, her definition of success reaches far outside the classroom. Is a child who needs counseling now receiving it? Did a father write a résumé? Did a mother get a job?

The problem with Ms. Ramos definition is that it can’t be easily quantified or compared and it is difficult to assign blame if success isn’t achieved. If 80% of the children need counseling at 50% are receiving it, is Ms. Ramos accountable? What role or responsibility does Ms. Ramos play in getting a father to complete a resume or getting mother a job? But here’s a reminder to “reformers”: ALL children need a bed to sleep in and three meals a day first and foremost… and if 82,000 children in NYC are not getting those basic needs fulfilled, please do not blame the schools or the teacher’s unions… and don’t expect a test score to help identify what improvements are needed.

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