homeless help

Three things to know about the record number of homeless students in New York City schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose (center) answers questions from lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday.

One in ten New York City students was homeless at some point last school year — a staggering number of vulnerable students who pose a special challenge for schools and city officials.

The rise in homeless students is tied to an overall increase in homelessness in the city, where a record number of people now stay in shelters. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has scrambled to serve this growing population by creating more shelters and affordable housing — though critics say not enough — while his education department focuses on keeping homeless students in school.

At a City Council hearing Wednesday, lawmakers grilled city officials about their strategy for meeting the needs of students in temporary housing, who tend to do worse in class than their peers and miss many days of school.

Here are three big takeaways from the hearing about the city’s homeless students and the administration’s response to this crisis.

There are twice as many homeless students in New York City as total students in Boston

More than 111,500 public school students experienced homelessness last school year, according to state data released this week, or roughly one in ten students in the city’s district and charter schools. Those students may stay in homeless shelters, motels or crammed into friends’ or relatives’ apartments.

That represents a 6 percent increase over the previous year, and is the largest number since the state began keeping records. Overall, roughly one in eight of city students experienced homelessness at some point in the last five years, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

“Homelessness is at a crisis level in this city,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who heads the education committee.

The city is boosting resources at schools with the most homeless students.

The education department is deploying extra programs and services to accommodate more homeless students, but acknowledged there could be room for improvement, top officials said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose said the city is dispatching social workers to 43 elementary schools with high rates of homeless students, an increase from last year. She also pointed to $10.3 million her department has spent on programs like shelter-based reading clubs and hiring staffers whose job is make sure homeless students make it to school.

The city has expanded its network of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families. It also launched a bus service last year for homeless students in grades K-6 so they can stay in the same school even if their families are relocated to distant shelters.

There have been “small signs” that the city’s programs are paying off, Rose told lawmakers after two hours of questioning — before adding that much hard work remains.

“We believe there is an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done,” she said.

The city is attacking the issue, advocates say — but not quickly enough.

Lawmakers peppered education department and homeless services officials with questions about whether the city’s plan is enough for students who struggle with the most severe effects of poverty.

They asked whether there are enough education department staff in shelters, why those staff members must only attain a high school diploma, whether the city could do more to make sure homeless students aren’t regularly bouncing between schools, and why the education department doesn’t offer bus transportation for preschool students in shelters.

At one point, after suggesting the city create a task force to study problems facing students in temporary housing, City Councilman Stephen Levin suggested the city wasn’t moving aggressively enough.

“What you’re describing is the status quo,” he said, “and the status quo is unacceptable.”

Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, said in an interview that the city is moving in the right direction — just not quickly enough.

As an example, she pointed out that more than 150 schools have populations where at least 10 percent of students live in shelters — yet the city is only sending 43 extra social workers to schools with high homeless populations. The city should raise that number to 100, she said.

“The city has taken considerable steps,” Levine said. “But the statistics show the significant need for the city to redouble its efforts.”

NEW MOMENT

Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”


Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 


Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.

Senior reporter Marta Aldrich contributed to this report.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.