A recent report by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness revealed some devastating facts about homeless students in New York City. In the last year alone, their numbers grew by more than 20 percent from 80,000 to over 110,000. They are absent from school almost half the entire academic year. They transfer schools at least once a year; over half transfer three times or more, with each move resulting in academic setbacks. They perform significantly worse than their housed peers in math and English language arts, and they repeat grades and drop out at higher rates, with only half ever graduating from high school.
While these facts are devastating, what they project is even worse. If the apparent policy failures in educating homeless students are not addressed, we can expect more generations of children growing up with incomplete educations, in severe poverty, and spending much of their adult years moving in and out of homeless shelters—repeating cycles of homelessness with families of their own.
At present, homeless students are scattered throughout the citywide school system. Some 62 public schools have homeless student populations of over 30 percent—and the percentage is significantly higher at 40 of these schools. The placement of these students throughout the city has created a significant, yet ignored, policy challenge.
Homeless students have a unique set of educational, physical, and emotional needs which are not being addressed in any significant or systematic way. As a result, most of them experience educational setbacks for no other reason than being homeless. Because they miss school so often they get labeled disruptive, problematic, or slow learners. In fact, many if not most of these students are—at their core—none of the above. They are placed in schools far from where they are sheltered, resulting in long hours of travel time and directly impacting their academic performance. In short, homeless students are often tired, hungry, stressed, and traumatized when they arrive to a new school and become, yet again, victims—this time of an educational process that is leaving them behind.
Homeless students must be meaningfully recognized as a special needs population within the public-school system. They require intensive academic services to get them to grade level, and to keep them from falling further behind or dropping out altogether. If we are ever to reverse the impacts of homelessness on the education of these vulnerable students, particularly at a time when their population is growing exponentially, we are going to have to rethink the way we approach and manage their educations.
In New York City, innovative charter schools are constantly being created to experiment and improve the educational outcomes of its students. Why not establish a charter school as an opportunity for homeless students to catch up and thrive—a Jump Start School? With a new chancellor now at the helm of the public school system, the time is right for a bold policy approach to the education of homeless students.
Alternatively, NYC’s DOE could designate a number of schools with overwhelming numbers of homeless students as Jump Start Schools that could be staffed and resourced to rapidly address the educational setbacks these students face. The academic programming in these schools could be tiered to students’ specific academic needs; some could attend these facilities for short periods, others may be there longer. The bottom line is that as students begin to perform at grade level many more school options and opportunities will be available to them.
With almost 10 percent of NYC’s students living in a state of homelessness, creating a discrete group of Jump Start schools makes sense. It should not be seen as an effort to segregate these students, but to elevate them. Equally important, it would add little, if any, cost to the current system—considering that each year roughly 3,000 homeless students repeat a grade, at an average cost to the city of over $200 million annually. Those funds would be better spent accelerating those students’ educations.
For decades, city government implemented numerous policy initiatives to move homeless families to permanent housing. Now they should pilot Jump Start charter schools to move homeless students to promising futures.
Ralph da Costa Nunez, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.