Students in temporary housing—commonly referred to as homeless students—are a particularly vulnerable population, given the trauma they have been exposed to both before and as a result of their homelessness. Yet their needs often go unrecognized, or worse yet, ignored in schools. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is an opportunity for New York State to focus attention, urgency, and resources on ensuring that schools enable homeless students to achieve at high levels.
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Statewide, homeless students are half as likely to meet state academic standards compared to students who have never been homeless. And the proficiency rates for formerly homeless students are nearly the same as achievement levels for currently homeless students. See the data and our recommendations for action.
Here are the quick facts and steps New York can take to ensure that ESSA provides the urgency, resources, and support to meet the needs of students in temporary housing.
Hear how schools are meeting the needs of homeless students.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing additional stories of individual schools that are enabling students in temporary housing to achieve at high levels.
At the Walton Avenue School, students in temporary housing represented more than 25 percent of ELA and math test-takers in 2015-2016. Those students outperformed their never-homeless peers in ELA (53 percent proficiency, compared to 50 percent proficiency) and both groups of Walton students outperformed the statewide average for all students (38 percent proficiency). In math that year, Walton students in temporary housing outperformed their never-homeless peers (58 percent proficiency, compared to 53 percent proficiency) and both groups outperformed the statewide average for all students (39 percent proficiency).
Walton staff closely monitor the academic performance of all students starting in kindergarten so they stay on track to meet grade-level expectations. When students fall behind, the school provides academic intervention support services during the school day. All students have access to an after-school program run by the New Settlement, and homeless students are encouraged to participate so that they can complete their homework with the assistance of program staff.
The school also carefully monitors all students’ attendance and timeliness, reaching out to families whose children are frequently late or absent. Staffers try to identify the reasons children may be late or absent, and then work with families to address those issues. Students who are chronically absent are assigned a school staff member (“mentors”), who regularly check-in with students and their families. The school also provides attendance incentives, including pizza parties for classrooms that have had perfect attendance for designated periods.
Walton also offers additional supports, including a full-time social worker dedicated to students in temporary housing and access to on site social service and community organizations.
The social worker, supported through the New York City Department of Education’s “Bridging the Gap” program, helps families secure transportation so students can get to school regularly and on time, and also assists families with a range of needs, including purchasing supplies and uniforms.
As a participant in the NYC DOE’s Community Schools Program, all students also have access to Abbott House clinicians. Abbott House provides workshops for staff, including a series on therapeutic crisis intervention, which has helped to improve their understanding of the emotional challenges students face.
To engage families, Walton hosts coffee Fridays, where parents are invited to meet with the principal and learn about upcoming events such as workshops, testing schedules, and school activities. On Tuesdays, parents are invited to meet with their children’s teachers after-school.
At East Harlem Scholars Academy, a charter school operated by East Harlem Tutorial Program, students in temporary housing represented approximately 15 percent of ELA and math test-takers in 2015-2016. Those students outperformed their never-homeless peers in ELA (39 percent proficiency, compared to 38 percent proficiency) and both groups of Scholars Academy students performed at approximately the same level as the statewide average for all students (38 percent proficiency). In math that year, Scholars Academy students in temporary housing outperformed their never-homeless peers (71 percent proficiency, compared to 62 percent proficiency) and both groups outperformed the statewide average for all students (39 percent).
Scholars Academy staff monitor the academic performance of all students, identifying interventions to meet each student’s individual needs. If staff notice a drop in students’ grades after they have recently moved into temporary housing, the school develops targeted academic interventions, taking into account the students’ temporary housing status.
The school integrates responsive and restorative practices into its classrooms. Elementary classes are co-taught, and academic intervention staff are strategically placed in classrooms to allow students to have differentiated instruction. The school also offers a longer school day and school year so students have more access to academics.
The elementary grades (pre-k to grade 4) have two full-time social workers and the middle school grades (grades 5-7) currently have one full-time social worker – trained in trauma informed practices – who collaborate with staff to ensure they can identify academic, behavioral, or other changes that may signal a need for intervention.
Scholars Academy emphasizes family engagement and welcomes parents to spend time at their children’s school each morning. That allows parents to connect with teachers, social workers, and other staff about concerns, including the family’s temporary housing status. The schools review attendance data, as well as changes to address or designated adults for student pickups, and then check in with families to offer any needed support.
Once staff become aware of a student’s temporary housing status, they work with the family to develop a plan to ensure that the student is able to fully participate in school activities. That could include providing students with free uniforms, Metrocards, or time and space during the school day to complete homework assignments. Staff also reassure families that they will not be penalized if their children are late because of longer travel distances, in some cases because they are placed at shelters far from school. Scholars Academy staff work with families in temporary housing individually and maintain the confidentiality of their housing status, so that parents and students do not feel stigmatized in the school community.
At the Brooklyn Landmark Elementary School (BLES), students in temporary housing represented approximately 20 percent of ELA and math test-takers in 2015-2016. BLES students in temporary housing performed better than their never-homeless peers in ELA (94 percent proficiency, compared to 67 percent proficiency) and both groups of students outperformed the statewide average for all students in ELA (38 percent proficiency). In math, BLES students in temporary housing also outperformed their never-homeless peers (88 percent proficiency, compared to 67 percent proficiency) and both groups outperformed the statewide average for all students in math (39 percent proficiency).
BLES has a culture of high expectations for all students, including students in temporary housing. Starting in kindergarten, BLES tracks the academic performance of all students to ensure they are on or working toward grade level. The school offers extended literacy blocks of instruction each day. All teachers at the school push in to literacy classes to help decrease the teacher to student ratio and allow for more differentiated instruction based on student need. The school also offers after-school instruction for all third- to fifth-graders from January to the spring of each school year.
BLES also places a strong emphasis on attendance. For students with less than 90 percent attendance, staff follow up with families to develop a better understanding of why students are missing school and work with families to improve students’ attendance. BLES also expects students to be on-time each day, but understands that for students in temporary housing this may be difficult, especially if the family is commuting a long distance.
Many of the homeless students at BLES reside in shelters and arrive at BLES after attending many different schools. BLES staff meet with families soon after enrollment to develop a better understanding of the student’s schooling history. BLES staff also meet with students and assess them quickly to get a better understanding of their level of academic need. In addition, BLES has created a buddy system to help new students acclimate to the school’s culture. BLES will also provide school uniforms, school supplies and cover the cost of class trips for students in temporary housing, depending on a family’s need. Through a partnership with Change for Kids, food, coat, and toy collection drives are held in November and December, which are distributed to BLES families in need, including families in temporary housing.