Schools target homeless students for extra help, attention
On Board Online • October 9, 2017
By Merri Rosenberg
In the book "Those Shoes" by Maribeth Boelts, a boy named Jeremy wants the sneakers everyone else in school is wearing. After an ill-fitting thrift store pair produces sore feet, he comes to appreciate other things - warm boots, the love of his grandmother and the chance to help a friend.
Elizabeth Russell, instructional reading specialist with Orange Ulster BOCES, uses the story in lunchtime book clubs at various elementary schools. There is more to her agenda than improving literacy skills.
Many of the students in Russell's book clubs have experienced homelessness and Russell's goal is to help them develop "resiliency." She is most pleased when the books prompt students to share thoughts about how a character met a challenge or describe how they'd solve a problem presented in the book.
During the five-week program, Russell helps students explore the idea of succeeding despite challenges through a variety of book discussions and art projects.
Such clubs are one way educators can stimulate a conversation about challenges that impoverished and homeless students face in their everyday lives. That's important, because the effects of even short-term homelessness can be lifelong.
"The impact of homelessness on children is particularly devastating," according to a 2016 report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. "Research has shown that, among young children, the stress of homelessness can lead to changes in brain architecture, which can interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships."
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, New York had the largest increase of any state in homelessness from 2007 to 2015, rising 41 percent to 88,250.
Eighty-five percent of the homeless live in New York City. But homelessness is present in every part of the state, noted Jennifer Pringle, project director for NYS-TEACHS (Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students) of Advocates for Children of New York.
"It's not just a downstate issue," she said. "The numbers are slowly ticking up. Outside New York City, there's been a steady increase of three to five percent."
Experts point to increasing poverty, lack of affordable housing, residual effects of Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, and even uncertainty about immigration status as producing homelessness in New York State.
An increase in the numbers of unaccompanied minor children from Latin America has also added to the population districts now serve. Some families double up with other family members, some are living in local motels or hotels, still others are in the shelter system.
Federal laws - particularly the McKinney Vento Act and Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act - facilitate these students' access to school, transportation, nutrition and academic support. But many districts are going beyond their legal obligations to serve homeless students - and others - by providing special academic programming or other forms of support.
"A lot of districts offer after-school, summer programming and before school programming, with amazing clothing, food, backpack and school supplies' drives," said Pringle of NYS-TEACHS. "They're unsung heroes."
In St. Lawrence County, the Odgensburg City School District has a distinctive pantry program called "A Little Something Extra." Any student can pick up something they need, such as a towel for gym, an after school snack or school supplies, said Pam Luckie, the Title I liaison for the district. Among the district's 1,600 students, about 65 were experiencing homelessness at the start of the last academic school year.
In Westchester County, the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns have a lending library "specifically for temporarily housed students," said Scott Dorn, head of pupil personnel services. The district also has an after-school program to help students who need academic support.
Schools play a significant role in providing stability for these students.
"People tend to trust schools," said Peekskill superintendent Mary Foster, where about 250 of 3,200 students experienced homelessness last year. "Public school can be a haven."
The district offers a support center in the registration office, which sponsors clothing, toy and book drives throughout the year-even household items for families.
Some district programs that target students who are homeless are supported by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants program, which is managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
For instance, in Westchester County, the New Rochelle City School District uses a McKinney-Vento grant to fund an after-school tutoring program to support students with academic as well as social and emotional needs.
BOCES often have a coordinating role in addressing the issue of homelessness, sometimes by managing grants on behalf of a consortium of agencies and/or schools.
In Orange Ulster BOCES, a McKinney-Vento grant provides for staff development for teachers, administrators and support staff.
"It's trauma-sensitive education, about how trauma impacts development and how to accommodate for that," said Diane Lang, director of instructional support services at Orange Ulster BOCES. She noted that the Orange Ulster BOCES provided more than 14 professional development sessions for 130 participants last year.
A state Strengthening Teacher and Leader Effectiveness grant supports the "check and connect" program that is in place in several North Country districts, run by St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES. The grant provides their member schools with the required Title I liaisons and mentors, as well as training for these roles. When the BOCES began this program a few years ago, there were 100 students in 18 districts; now there are about 400 or 500.
There are less formal efforts to help students who are homeless. Melissa Scudder, Title I liaison in Parishville-Hopkinton Central School District, stands by her office door when students arrive in the morning to observe their body language and see who might need to stop by during the day to discuss issues. Meanwhile, Therese Baxter, a mentor in that district, meets students when they get off the school bus. If a student looks out of sorts, she will walk with them to class, chat them up, and follow up with a teacher later in the day.
Mentors "figure out what kids need," said Katherine Lynch, the Title I coordinator for St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES. But getting students transportation to agencies or appointments for help or services can be tough in rural areas. Districts work with their neighbors, sometimes coordinating transportation and sharing information about referrals.
The ultimate goal of these efforts, however districts choose to implement them, encompasses academic success, regular attendance and social comfort, so that these students feel fully integrated into the school community.
For Robin Hecht, director of curriculum and instruction at Marlboro Central School District, Orange-Ulster BOCES's reading program worked well for the first and second graders who participated. In that district, the students who were selected were asked to bring a friend, said Hecht, because "we wanted to build a repertoire of friends for the children. I really saw the acceptance of children into the culture, and a feeling they belong."
Editor's Note: The Trump Administration proposed cutting the competitive portion of the McKinney-Vento grant program, called "Continuum of Care" grants, by 13 percent. The National School Boards Association and NYSSBA support level funding at the 2017 amount, $2 billion. "We're pleased that level funding for these grants is in the House of Representatives' appropriations bill," said Julie Marlette, NYSSBA's director of governmental relations.