Speaking about the report last week on the steps of City Hall, James decried the failure of the Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to provide proper resources and attention to homeless children, who make up 10 percent of the city’s student population.
“A basic tenant of our city and country is that all children deserve a high-quality education, but in New York, our most vulnerable students are being denied this opportunity,” she said.
According to the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO), in the 2013-2014 school year more than 65 percent of students living in shelters were chronically absent. A student is deemed chronically absent if he or she misses more than 20 days of school, which is roughly 10 percent of the school year.
According to the report, in New York City three-quarters of students who are chronically absent in the sixth grade don’t end up graduating from high school.
More than 104,000 children, including those living doubled up, were identified as homeless.
“These children are suffering and they desperately need our help,” James said. “Our city can and must provide common sense solutions to address these obstacles and ensure that students and teachers in schools have the support they need.”
The public advocate provided four recommendations in her report to improve attendance outcomes for those students. First, she suggested adjusting the city’s formula for fair share funding by creating a special category for homeless students. James said that would give schools the additional resources they need.
The second recommendation is eliminating the “arbitrary” date of October 31, the deadline for schools to receive funding for educating a homeless student. James said if a child enrolls in a particular school after that cutoff date, the school won’t receive the additional funding to provide resources for homeless students.
“Schools that enroll high numbers of homeless students mid-year are basically punished with low budgets,” James said.
According to the report, elementary school students living in shelters have the highest rate of mid-year transfers. Roughly 40 percent of those students were listed as chronically absent.
The next recommendation is to provide more social workers for schools with homeless students. Through the First Lady’s Thrive NYC initiative, which focuses on addressing mental health issues in the city, schools received funding for social workers, family assistants and other specialists.
James called on the City Council to baseline that funding, making it a permanent fixture in the budget.
Her last recommendation is for increased communication and coordination between DOE and DHS, including the creation of a student tracking system that uses shared data.
“It’s critically important that the city adopt some of these recommendations,” she said.
Giselle Routhier, policy director at Coalition for the Homeless, said missing school and falling behind academically have become “all-too-common problems” for the students who spend at least one night in a shelter.
“Study after study shows the painful impact of homelessness on children’s development in education,” she said. “These effects can be mitigated by taking steps to ensure educational continuity for children like those outlined in the report.”
Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the Citizens Committee for Children, said currently there are 23,000 students who stay in a shelter. Half of them are living in facilities built to be a homeless shelter, while the other half are living in either cluster sites or commercial hotels.
“The homeless system is setting up barriers to getting children to school,” she said. “We need to take down those barriers so that these young children can get to school so they can succeed and become productive New Yorkers.”