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Too Few Homeless Students Appropriately Placed, City Concedes

Wednesday, October 19, 2011 - 12:02 AM

With more than 18,000 homeless children in New York City shelters last fiscal year, City Council members on Tuesday questioned three city agencies about how they are working to ensure that homeless children have access to the same public education as other students.

Students in temporary housing tend to lag behind their permanently housed peers in academic performance and graduation rates. They also suffer more socially and emotionally, according to the group Advocates for Children of New York.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations in the Department of Education; Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, and Deborah Harper, assistant commissioner in the Department of Youth and Community Development, testified on how their agencies were implementing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Among other provisions, the law requires that students who enter homeless shelters be allowed either to remain in the same school that they were attending before moving into a shelter or to enroll in any school near the shelter that the student is eligible to attend.

Council members said the city agencies were failing students when it came to fulfilling the act's provisions.

The Department of Homeless Services acknowledged data from advocacy groups that said that only about 35 percent of families who came through the shelter system were being placed in the district where their youngest child attended school.

“We want to do better than 35 percent,” Mr. Diamond said. “It is too low.”

Mr. Diamond added that the department was often constrained by availability in the shelter system, or by a parent's choice to move a child from a school.

Council members also questioned the department’s inability to provide transportation for many students on Department of Education buses. Young children, they said, cannot always take a public bus or subway to school because parents are not always able to accompany them.

Mr. Diamond said the Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Education were now sharing information, and that his office had obtained access to an online system that gives the address of a child’s school.

Under a city pilot program, Operation Start Strong, Stay Stronger, the Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Education also now share student-level information, such as shelter assignments and school attendance information.

But council members at the meeting, including Robert Jackson, Lewis A. Fidler and Annabel Palma, pushed the departments to provide better services to homeless youth and their families, set goals and provide more data to the City Council.

“We’re doing a better job than we did last year, and not as good a job as we’ll do next year,” said Ms. Grimm, the deputy schools chancellor.

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