Some 100,000 students who attend New York City public schools were homeless during the 2015–2016 school year. That’s a number equal to the total population of Albany, New York.
The daunting challenges that creates, both for individual children struggling to learn and for schools trying to improve performance, are laid out in a report by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, and covered in a New York Times article. If current trends continue, the report’s authors say, one in every seven New York City public school students will be homeless at some point during elementary school.
“In every school classroom, that’s two or three kids,” said Anna Shaw-Amoah, principal policy analyst at the institute. “And the challenges are not just about whether you’re currently living in a shelter or a doubled up setting, but did they have that experience last year, or did they have this experience in kindergarten? The instability really travels with students. If you fall behind in one year, it’s going to be harder to get on grade level the next year.”
Within the last six years, more than 140,000 New York City students have been homeless, the report said.
Homelessness is difficult under any circumstances, but for children, the stress and physical dislocation can be like a tornado dropped into the school day. Students bounce from school to school as their family leaves home, perhaps staying with friends, before entering the shelter system, where they are often moved from place to place. Getting children to school each day becomes an enormous challenge, especially if families have recently moved across the city.
The typical homeless elementary school student missed 88 days of school, according to the report, which is almost half of a school year.
Families who have lost their home must make the wrenching choice of leaving a child in a school they know, or transferring them to a school closer to where they are staying. Moving to a new school may further the feeling of dislocation, but it makes it easier for the child to get to class. The report found that the typical homeless child transferred schools midyear at least two times during elementary school.
Homeless children were more likely than those with stable housing to be on the wrong side of a huge array of indicators. They were more likely to be suspended or drop out, more likely to face delays in being identified as needing special education services, and more likely to need services to help them learn English.
One in every six students identified as still learning English was classified as homeless, according to the report. Most of them were doubled up. Children learning English who were homeless were more likely to need services longer than their peers with a stable place to live.