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Council presses city agencies to do more for homeless students

Despite improvements, the city is still falling short at protecting homeless students from disruptions to their education, advocates told members of the City Council today.

Education committee chair Robert Jackson said he convened a hearing on obstacles facing homeless students in part to follow up on the story, reported by the Daily News last year, of a high school student who was unable to take a required Regents exam because she had to spend the day with her family going through the city’s shelter intake process. Since then, the Department of Homeless Services revised its policy to excuse children from most of the lengthy intake process.

“We’re pleased that this harmful policy was changed,” Jackson said. But he said, “This is but one example of the hardships faced by homeless students. DHS’s placement of families in shelters outside of their original community, combined with the [Department of Education]’s busing restrictions, lead to many students in shelters having to transfer schools, thereby disrupting their education.”

DOE and DHS officials said they are increasingly collaborating to help students classified as homeless, who have quadrupled since 2008 to more than 65,000 and who make up a significant portion of students who are chronically absent from school. But the officials said they could do more to help more support students’ legal right to remain enrolled at their “school of origin,” the school they were enrolled in before becoming homeless.

DOE Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said the DOE has counted 50,000 students in temporary housing, 20,000 of them in shelters. “Our number indicates about 65 percent remain in their school of origin,” she said. “We have no idea why parents move a child from a school, and maybe that’s something we could address.”

Advocates said the answer could be found in the city’s policies about school transportation and placement.

“Unfortunately, specific practices at DOE and DHS all but guarantee educational instability for a large swath of homeless students,” testified Jared Stein, the assistant director of New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, an advocacy group that helps school districts work with homeless students. 

He suggested the DOE waive its 5-mile limit on the length of school bus routes so that students who need to travel long distances to reach their school of origin are able to. He also said that the DHS should place more homeless families with multiple school-aged children, who number in the thousands, in homes close to the school the youngest child in the family attends.

Seth Diamond, DHS commissioner, said his department tries to place families in their youngest child’s school district, but can’t always do so because of the family’s needs or availability in shelters.

“We want to do better than 35 percent,” he said, citing the department’s current success rate. “It is too low.”

But city officials said they were doing better than ever at addressing other challenges that homeless families face.

Diamond said for the first time this year the DHS has held “parent summits” on truancy, in addition to providing ongoing counseling services to students struggling to complete high school and apply to college.

And Grimm said the DOE and DHS have been collaborating more to share information with families and with each other, particularly by sharing up-to-date data on student attendance with shelter counselors.

For the first time this year, she said, “shelter staff can now know what school a child went to yesterday.”