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Nationwide, the push to shutter low-performing or financially unsustainable schools is starting to conflict with the even sharper rise in homeless students, some research is beginning to suggest.
The latest of those studies, released last week by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness in New York City, zeroes in on New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the school system to close or phase out the 20 schools identified as among the city’s lowest-performing 10 percent of schools and replace them with new small schools this school year. Researchers found that the closings often disproportionately affected schools attended by homeless students and that those students, arguably among the system’s most vulnerable, received little support for making the transition to a new school.
“The system can be very complex for a student who may be in a shelter or doubled up and living with friends,” said Alexandra E. Pavlakis, a senior policy analyst for the Institute and author of the report. “If a school is phasing out, it can be a complicated [process] to get a school that fits the student’s needs.”
The Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, in New York City, tracked homeless students and support for them in city schools slated for closure in the 2007-08 school year. At the time, researchers found higher concentrations of homeless students in many of these schools than the average for their New York boroughs.
For the study, researchers examined plans for homeless students during closures. Particularly among the high schools, researchers found the percentage of students living in temporary shelters who attended schools slated for closure met or exceeded the average for the borough. Problems in the transition plan for homeless students, English-language learners and special education students prompted the New York State Supreme Court to block the closures for the 2010-11 school year, a move which the appellate court upheld in July.
The lack of attention to those students’ needs is important because prior research has shown homeless students are twice as likely as peers with stable homes to repeat a grade. But, as some of the high schools were to be phased out, students were guaranteed to be allowed to graduate from their home school only “assuming they continue to earn credits on schedule.”
Principal Lisa Fuentes, of Christopher Columbus High School 415, one of those studied, agreed that the uncertainty surrounding the school’s status has been difficult, but argued that the provision requiring students to stay on track for graduation would not necessarily pose problems for her students,
“Just because they’re homeless doesn’t mean they are any less capable to graduate than the other children,” she said. “Right now, we wouldn’t be closing for another four years, so we definitely work on making sure they understand their transcript and their needs to graduate from high school”
The report also found homeless students transferring from a school were at greater risk of ending up in another low-performing school. That finding echoes that of a 2009 study on Chicago school closures, which concluded that the effect of having to shift to another school eliminated the benefit for students of closing the first low-performing school
Jennifer Pringle, project director for the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, or NYS-TEACHES, agreed with the report’s finding that homeless students frequently become concentrated in low-performing schools. Because homeless students tend to be highly mobile—prior research finds more than 40 percent change schools at least once a year—they often get placed in whatever school has the most seats available at the time of enrollment, she said. “And that’s often these low-performing schools,” Ms. Pringle added. “In the most sought-after schools there aren’t too many seats.”
‘One More Wrinkle’
The New York study is limited and ongoing, but highlights problems in planning, transition support, and monitoring of homeless students after closure. Twenty-six states reported a more-than-50-percent increase in homeless students from 2007 to 2009, according to the most recent estimates by the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. Homeless education experts say issues like those in New York could hinder the effectiveness of closure as an option for cash-strapped districts and those implementing Race to the Top and School Improvement Fund turnaround programs.
“I thought it was very eye-opening,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director for NAEHCY. “As the world changes, whether the economic world, the housing world or the school world, we have to look at how are we adapting the law to ensure we’re meeting the needs of these students. A lot of schools are looking at ‘at-risk students’ more broadly, and they don’t drill down to the specific types of students at risk and what their different needs are. [School closure] is one more wrinkle we’re contending with.”
Rene Heybach, the director of the Law Project at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, who advised in a lawsuit on behalf of homeless students during the Chicago closures, agreed. She noted that some Chicago students had changed schools five to 11 times, sometimes moving from one shuttered school to another on the road to closure.
“You began to see a trail of exacerbation of mobility,” Ms. Heybach said. “What reduces the harmful effects of mobility is having somewhere positive to go to, but no thought had been given to the question of appropriate transitions for these students.” The district now operates under a court settlement requiring it to provide transition planning for homeless students.
Minneapolis public schools, by contrast, are trying to brace for both the increase in homeless students and ongoing school closures and attendance zone restructuring.
Elizabeth Hinz, district liaison for homeless and highly mobile students in Minneapolis, said the district weighs the stability of a school when deciding where to place a homeless student; it tries to keep them out of schools slated for major restructuring or closure. The students’ records are tagged electronically to ease transfer to new schools, and the district assigns liaisons for the homeless to individual schools to serve students.
Yet even in Minneapolis, Ms. Hinz said school closure can throw homeless services for a loop. “We’re transferring hundreds of kids ... [and] all the staff changes that are associated with the school closures,” Ms. Hinz said. Tracking homeless students and including them in restructuring plans would be “way too organized” in that context, she added.
Still, Ms. Pringle said other districts should consider Minneapolis’ model. “Placing students in a school that is unstable or slated to be closed, is just devastating, not just academically but socially and emotionally,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 2010 edition of Education Week