11/09/2011 06:59 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

For Homeless Students, Transitional Shelters Must Be Used as a Tool, Not a Roadblock

Homeless families currently spend an average of 11 months in New York City's transitional shelters, longer than the length of a school year. This is time they will never get back. But in part because of bureaucratic roadblocks, New York City has not been able to fulfill its commitment to a quality education for the more than 50,000 homeless students in New York City schools. We can do better.

On October 18, the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness testified at a New York City Council hearing to discuss how to better coordinate among city agencies, in order to improve the education of homeless students. While I applaud the council for holding the hearing, further coordination is needed.

Getting the Most Out of Transitional Family Shelters

The school day is just part of a child's education. High-quality after-school and summer programs improve educational outcomes for children, and young homeless children are less likely than their housed peers to have access to learning-rich surroundings. But we have a resource right in front of our noses: the shelter itself. For those in transitional family homeless shelters, the shelter can provide this learning- and literacy-rich environment, and provide child care, early-childhood education, after-school programming, and other on-site resources to families, including case management, health care, and adult education.

Because of a successful New York City Department of Education (DOE) program that brought public-school teachers into the shelters for tutoring and homework assistance, fewer than 10 percent of students in a New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS)-funded Queens transitional shelter had to attend summer school this past summer. Yet this year that program was cut, as many wraparound services often are when resources are limited. But this is exactly the sort of program that should instead be expanded.

Parents experiencing homelessness often cope with myriad issues that make it difficult to prioritize parenting and learning. While parents are expected to take responsibility for their actions, they can't do it alone. One-third of respondents in the Urban Justice Center's survey of New Yorkers in city workforce-development programs reported that finding affordable child care was a barrier to employment. In New York, every dollar invested in child care sends $1.89 back into the economy, according to New York State Child Care Coordinating Council and Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning.

For the youngest children, numerous studies show that rich, high-quality educational environments and experiences for children up to age five can have tremendously positive impacts on their future educational attainment levels. The brain development that should happen in young children at these stages is vital to their future success. Locating early childhood education programs in transitional shelters can help to increase the number of positive interactions that young children have with other adults and children, helping them to develop the social and emotional skills that are vital to school readiness.

Conveniently located programs that are understanding of the needs of homeless families can help children eventually break the cycle of homelessness. Too many students fly under the radar, and are not being offered the services they need to complement their classes. As a result, homeless students score worse on tests, attend school less, and drop out more than housed New York City youth. Extended program hours, aggressive recruitment, creative strategies for parent involvement, and resource provision are all needed to effectively serve homeless children and their parents, helping them to create and maintain stable households. In addition, shelters need lower staff-to-student ratios for tutoring and teaching, and more opportunities for community involvement.

School Closures Show Need for Better Data Surrounding Homeless Students

And in order to have true coordination, we need to bring a broader cast of characters to take part in this discussion. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, with programs such as the Nurse Family Partnership, and the New York City Administration for Children's Services, with its early care and education programs, must also be part of this dialogue.

The need for coordination of city agencies is apparent when we look at New York City's closures of low-performing schools. Last September, the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness released a report, "The Impact of School Closures on Homeless Students in New York City," that showed the schools proposed for closure had a greater number of homeless students, on average, than schools citywide.

Regardless of the general debate on school closures, they must be implemented with the highest-need students in mind. For many homeless children, changing schools can lead to enrollment problems and lower achievement among both students who transfer and those who are left behind in failing schools. Homeless children are more vulnerable to the negative outcomes of school closures, including enrollment delays and lower academic achievement.

In September, the DOE released a list of 20 struggling elementary and middle schools in danger of closing. The expected further closures will only exacerbate this problem, as the number of homeless students in those schools is more than double the city average. This is a perfect example of where the DOE and DHS must work together to address the needs of these students, and better track and make public the data surrounding attendance and graduation rates among this population.

Finally, when it comes to school closures and all issues surrounding homeless students, it's impossible to get the truest picture when different agencies count homeless children differently and provide different data. It is only when we have the most accurate numbers across the board that full coordination will be possible. It is then that will we start to see real improvement in the lives of homeless students in New York.