For Homeless Students, Many Unanswered Questions

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A City Council oversight hearing last month attempted to learn more about services for homeless children in city schools. But weeks after the hearing, the two city agencies responsible for homeless students, the Department of Education and the Department of Homeless Services, are still trying to reconcile conflicting information in response to basic questions.

How many homeless students are enrolled? How many live within walking distance of their schools? And how many students are riding yellow school buses to distant neighborhoods -- or taking long journeys on the subway to get to the school they had been attending before being placed in shelters far from home?

The questions came into sharp focus this week with a news report about N-Dia Layne and her mother, Whitnee Layne.

N-Dia is a fourth grade student who was profiled in an article in The New York Times earlier this week. Ms. Layne, 34, and N-Dia, 9, were transferred from their original homeless shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn, to one in upper Manhattan this summer.

Once school started, the pair tried to make the hour and 15 minute commute to N-Dia’s original school in Brooklyn because Ms. Layne wanted to keep some consistency in N-Dia’s life. Meanwhile, her attempts to be moved to housing closer to N-Dia’s school, or receive bus service for N-Dia, failed. And earlier this month Ms. Layne agreed to transfer N-Dia to a school close to the Manhattan shelter because of poor grades and multiple absences.

The City Council hearing attempted to provide a window into the lives of children like N-Dia, as council members tried to draw out information from representatives of the two city agencies. (Representatives from the Department of Youth and Community Services were also present at the hearing.) But the information was often incomplete or conflicting -- and council members are now asking the agencies to respond to their queries in writing.

At the hearing, homeless services representatives and Education Department officials even differed on how they count homeless students, using different federal guidelines.

In their testimony, officials from the Department of Homeless Services defined homeless students as those 6 to 17 years old, with no other housing options. By that measure, they said, they serve an average of 6,902 children a month.

But the Department of Education defines homeless children as those who are 3 to 21 years old and in temporary housing. By that measure, their estimate is more than eight times that of homeless services: an estimated 53,503 homeless students who were served last year.

On the matter of how close the children are placed to their school: Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, originally said 83 percent of families served by the Homeless Services Department remain in the same borough where their youngest child attends school.

But he went on to explain that the agency was not including the number of families that cannot be placed because of violence issues or medical circumstances. By factoring in those people, the percent of families remaining in the same school district drops to 35.

“We want to do better than 35 percent, it’s too low, and I think if we had a choice we would always place a child near where the youngest child attends,” Mr. Diamond said at the hearing. “There are constraints on where we can do that, sometimes it’s a situation the parent has sometimes it’s a situation we have in terms of available capacity.”

But Homeless Services was also counting the number of families who stayed in a shelter for one night in their total of homeless students served.

“That kind of muddies the number a bit if you’re including people who came in for one night,” said Lewis Fidler, chairman of the Youth Services Committee. “It’s clearly not significant interruption in their school system. Give me the number that the school placement is relevant.”

Mr. Fidler also questioned the number of homeless students who remained in the same school they attended before they entered a shelter.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations at the Department of Education, answered with data from 2008 and 2009.

“08/09? Were we alive in 08/09?” Mr. Fidler asked Ms. Grimm when she stated she didn’t have more recent figures.

“I certainly was,” she responded.

When Mr. Fidler asked why the numbers were not more up to date, Ms. Grimm said she didn’t have an answer but said she would try to get more recent figures for him.

The council committee was also interested in the busing of homeless students between shelters and schools. A spokeswoman for the Education Department said the Office of Pupil Transportation is busing 1,908 homeless students, out of 3,856 kindergarten to 6th grade students living in temporary housing who applied for busing this year.

But Jared Stein, the assistant director of the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, testified at the hearing that 700 homeless students receive busing services, fewer than a third of the city’s figure.

“If I did the math, it suggests that there are many, many thousands who could be sent to their local school, somewhere in their borough or somewhere in their school district, if they were being provided transportation,” Mr. Fidler said.

In addition, yellow school buses for general education are limited to routes that are five miles or less, limiting further the number of students who could be helped by such a service. And the number of children affected by that limitation, too, remains unknown.

Robert Jackson, chairman of the council’s education committee, said he is sending a letter to the two agencies on Thursday, asking for the additional data – standard procedure.

A spokeswoman for Councilwoman Annabel Palma said the council members “will continue to follow up until the questions are answered.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Jackson said the hearing served its purpose: focusing attention on homeless students.

“The hearing helped the Department of Education and Homeless Services make sure they will be focusing more on it, because they know there will be a follow up, and that’s important,” Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Stein, of the state’s technical and education assistance center, said the Education Department and Homeless Services Department has improved some factors, like attendance rates, but needs to show the same success in other areas.

"It is critical that the D.O.E. and D.H.S. continue to grow their efforts so that these valuable first steps become lasting change and much needed next steps occur," Mr. Stein said at the hearing. "Some of the most fundamental, research-based supports for the success of students experiencing homelessness have yet to be implemented, namely those involving increased school stability."