Where Nearly Half of Pupils Are Homeless, School Aims to Be Teacher, Therapist, Even Santa
June 8, 2016
By: Elizabeth Harris
There are supposed to be 27 children in Harold Boyd IV’s second-grade classroom, but how many of them will be there on a given day is anyone’s guess.
Since school began in September, five new students have arrived and eight children have left. Two transferred out in November. One who started in January was gone in April. A boy showed up for a single day in March, and then never came back. Even now, in the twilight of the school year, new students are still arriving, one as recently as mid-May.
At Public School 188, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, students churn relentlessly in and out. Administrators estimate that nearly half the students enrolled at the school do not last the full year. And how could it be otherwise?
Last school year, 47 percent of the students there were homeless. The percentage was higher at only two schools in New York City.
The number of homeless people in the city has never been larger, and to spend months in the classrooms of P.S. 188 is to see that this crisis does not play out just in the grown-up world of streets and shelters. It is lived in lunchrooms and libraries, in science labs and math classes, or while perched at a tiny desk trying to learn to read.
At P.S. 188, teachers and staff members grapple with problems that stretch the very idea of what a school is supposed to be. Their efforts are visible even in the school’s supply closets, where toothbrushes and deodorant are stored along with pencils and paper. A school like P.S. 188 strives to be social worker, advocate, therapist and even Santa Claus.
Shoes, for example, are not usually on the list of things a school provides. But P.S. 188 distributed hundreds of pairs this school year. It also gave away backpacks and holiday presents, refurbished computers and uniforms. It is installing a washer and dryer for families whose children come to school without clean clothes.
The staff struggles to improve test scores while the students navigate foster care and shelters, and not being able to go back home. And on any given day, the principal of P.S. 188, Suany Ramos, might welcome two or three new students and watch one disappear.
“They call me the beggar principal,” Ms. Ramos said. “Everywhere we go, I say, ‘I need, I need, I need for my families.’”
The Island School
P.S. 188, known as the Island School, opened more than 100 years ago in a classic pink-brick schoolhouse on the Lower East Side.
The school spans prekindergarten through eighth grade. It is on the eastern edge of Houston Street, between Avenue D and Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, in a neighborhood that has seen an explosion in recent years of expensive residential developments and popular restaurants.
Nearly all of the 500 students at P.S. 188 are poor. The school is surrounded on all sides by a fortress of public housing. Most of its students come from these housing projects, as well as from four homeless shelters in the area. One shelter is across the street from P.S. 188, which shares its building with a special education school and a girls’ charter school.
Ms. Ramos is in her second year as principal. She was born in Venezuela to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother and was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where she still lives. More than 60 percent of the students at P.S. 188 are Hispanic; Ms. Ramos, along with many other teachers and administrators at the school, hops back and forth between English and Spanish throughout the day.
By the New York City Education Department’s count, 82,514 children in the city’s public schools were either in shelters, temporarily staying with relatives or family friends, or in some other makeshift living situation at some point during the last school year. There are about that many students in the entire public school system of Austin, Tex.
At 46 New York City schools, at least a third of all students were homeless in the fall of the last school year.
That figure includes families living in the shelter system, as well as those who have told the Education Department that they were “doubled up,” meaning that a family was living with another family, a description that encompasses enormous variation. Parents might check that box if they had lost their apartment and moved in with a cousin and her husband who had a little extra space and a foldout couch.
In many instances, however, clutches of children and adults are crammed together in tiny apartments for months, even years. That kind of crowding makes it difficult, maybe impossible, to get a good night’s sleep, to discipline a child or to concentrate on homework.
During a writing exercise in December, Maicol, a second grader at P.S. 188, wrote to Santa, asking in blocky letters for $10,000 to buy a house. Maicol lived with seven other children and three adults in a small place in Bushwick, Brooklyn — 11 people in a one-bedroom apartment.
Among children living in shelters, a vast majority are black or Hispanic, and over all, homeless students are disproportionately young. Roughly a third of all students in temporary housing fall between prekindergarten and second grade. There are more homeless children in first grade than any other.
The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, announced this year that the city would spend $30 million to address the needs of homeless students. Roughly $20 million of that money will go toward building health clinics at campuses where many students live in shelters.
The other $10 million will go to a few initiatives, including placing attendance specialists at the 35 shelters where students go to school the least, and buying BlackBerrys for Education Department employees who are placed in city shelters to help families navigate the school system. Officials at the department said those efforts would build on existing programs for homeless children at shelters and schools.
When students are still learning English or need multiple special education services, schools receive additional money for each of those children. But the same is not true for homeless children, creating tremendous challenges for their schools.
Liza Pappas, an education policy analyst at the city’s Independent Budget Office, said in testimony to the City Council this year that administrators at high-poverty schools were instead asked to set aside $100 for each homeless student from a pot of money they receive to serve all their poor children.
Generally, Ms. Pappas said, that $100 does not cover more than a sweatshirt, a uniform or a backpack.
“This is not a foot, it’s a wing,” Natalie, a first grader, pronounced over a piece of paper titled Bat Facts.
She and her classmates were clustered at blue and green tables, in groups of about five, finishing up work on a packet about the flying mammals.
JeanCarlos, in a blue hooded sweatshirt, sat by himself at a desk in the front of the room. He was just beginning to color in a diagram of a bat, something his classmates had already done. His teacher, Dilifer Inoa, came and stood beside him to help him puzzle out where to put the word “ear.”
JeanCarlos was behind his classmates that day, Ms. Inoa said, because he had consistently been absent. At a minimum, she said, he would not come to school every Monday and every Friday.
Teachers at P.S. 188 like Ms. Inoa are presented with a near-daily choice. Should they review material, and then review it again, so that the students who are in and out of their classrooms are not left too far behind? Or should they plow ahead so that the rest of the class can keep learning new things, and steal moments when they can to give the others a little extra help?
It is not just the day-to-day absences of students that frustrate progress through the year, but also the changing composition of the class over all.
By the door to Ms. Inoa’s room, a colorful calendar plots out the birthdays of 31 children, but a class list taped to her desk from the beginning of the school year shows just 24 names.
“I started with 24 kids, and it went up to 30,” Ms. Inoa said. “But some left and some came, so it’s not the same group.”
By May, she had 27 students. And this year was better than last, she said. Last year, she got new students until the last week of school.
With a calm, warm manner, Ms. Inoa, 31, is a teacher in her third year at P.S. 188, the only place she has ever taught. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with dreams of being a pediatrician, but she could not afford it, she said. So she became a teacher. Her classroom, with its pale blue floors and sky blue walls, is an open bay of small, squirming children, waves of hands flying in the air whenever she asks a question.
JeanCarlos arrived in January, often sleepy and already far behind. Before he joined her class, Ms. Inoa said, he had only ever attended school for a total of a couple of months. That happens sometimes when students arrive with a history of interrupted schooling. But usually, those children have been living abroad. Ms. Inoa said that as far as she knew, JeanCarlos had been living in the Bronx.
When he joined her class, he was living in the shelter across the street. After coming to school for a few weeks, he disappeared for two months, Ms. Inoa said. He came back in April, and then he was gone again.
“JeanCarlos,” Ms. Inoa called during attendance one day this spring, scanning her charges. “JeanCarlos,” she called again, to no response.
She marked him absent and moved down the list.
Getting Them in the Door
Nearly 60 percent of students who live in shelters are chronically absent, according to the Education Department, as are more than a third of all students in temporary housing. That means they miss at least 20 days of school during the year.
At P.S. 188, a team of staff members pushes to reduce absences as much as possible.
Students who are frequently absent are assigned to staff members who are responsible for checking in with them, and for calling home when they do not show up. Mirta Rosales, the parent coordinator, makes daily calls as well. And to combat an end-of-year drop-off in attendance, which usually starts after testing ends, the school is offering weekly events this month, like a movie night and a barbecue, for the families of students who come to school regularly.
Every Friday, administrators and guidance counselors gather in Ms. Rosales’s office to discuss each child who has been absent more than twice in the previous 10 days.
In a February meeting, they talked about one student, chronically absent, who would not listen to his mother, and suggested social service agencies that might be able to help bring the boy under control. They discussed another family whose mother lived in the shelter across the street and whose father lived in an apartment without electricity or hot water, and another group of siblings who had started walking out of class to wander the halls. Something must be going on at home.
The very system meant to help homeless families can keep children out of school in unintended ways. The administrators and guidance counselors also discussed another group of siblings who had missed three days of school. Why? They had to accompany their mother to the Bronx office where all families with children that are entering the shelter system must apply.
Children are required to accompany their parents to prove the family makeup as they seek shelter. They can miss school for several days over the course of a 10-day application period. And many families apply more than once. In April, nearly half of the families found to be eligible for shelter had applied at least once before, which means that their children may have been drawn out of school again and again.
Advocates for homeless people frequently complain about the requirement.Steven Banks, the commissioner of the Human Resources Administration and the Social Services Department, said that as part of a broad review of programs for the homeless, the city was in the process of changing the way families apply for shelter to eliminate as many appointments as possible. At a minimum, it plans to avoid causing children to miss school.
Students at P.S. 188 wear uniforms, a polo shirt with the school’s name and pictures of the schoolhouse embossed on the left breast. The elementary school students wear navy shirts, and the older children are in maroon.
These are also the unofficial uniforms of the shelter across the street.
On a warm spring evening, under a sideways-slanting sun, a little girl with a Barbie backpack walked into the shelter deep in concentration, trying not to drip chocolate soft serve on her Island School shirt. Nearby, a boy wearing a navy P.S. 188 polo did flips on the bars of scaffolding just past the guard desk.
A few feet away, a sign said “Please do not swing on poles,” in English and in Spanish.
Upstairs, a father and his three young sons, all students at P.S. 188, were getting ready to eat dinner. They had oatmeal served in Tupperware, topped with blueberries. Chicken sautéed on the stove. Bananas for appetizers.
The father, Cranston, who is being identified by only his given name to protect his family’s privacy, favors dark blazers and carries around a harmonica in his pocket. He became homeless last year after he and his wife separated. He and his boys landed in this shelter on the Lower East Side, where they occupy a modest two-bedroom apartment while Cranston looks for work.
“It’s fine,” Amiri, the eldest son, said of their living situation. “We’re only here because my dad got a divorce. It’s fine.”
But Amiri said he missed his old school, a charter in Brooklyn. While he could rattle off a list of activities he had joined at the Island School — art, gymnastics, sports on Saturdays — he said he liked his classmates at his old school better. He had never been in a fight before he came to the Island School, he explained. Now he has.
“Some of the other kids,” he said, “they like to talk about a lot of other people’s families, and that’s not a good thing. That’s where the fights come up.”
Amiri could have stayed at his old school. By law, when families move, they are entitled to keep their children enrolled in their schools, even if they move outside the school’s zone.
But if children stay in their old schools, they may have to travel long distances, even across boroughs, and they will often be late to school.
Mr. Boyd, the second-grade teacher, said there was a girl in his class who traveled each day from the Bronx, and she routinely dropped into her seat at 11 a.m. A bright girl who did well in math but struggled with reading, another teacher said, she needed time in class to improve her skills. But in the mornings, she was just not there.
The school arranged for her to be tutored by volunteers from Reading Partners, a nonprofit group. The group was told never to come for her in the morning — the girl would not be there.
Trouble at Home
Ms. Ramos, the principal, breezed through the blue hallways of her school in early December, sheathed in her customary black suit and air of purposefulness.
“I love you, Ms. Ramos,” said a second grader, thrusting her face forward.
Ms. Ramos paused to smile and answer, “I love you, too.”
Out of earshot, Ms. Ramos explained that the girl thought her mother did not love her. So she needed to be told “I love you,” and she needed to say it.
“Walk in the shoes of these families, their issues, for one day,” Ms. Rosales, the parent coordinator, said.
Ms. Rosales’s job is to be the connection for parents at the school, to find answers to their questions when they come to her, and to seek them out if their children’s footing begins to slip. At P.S. 188, she knows everybody. She has lived on the Lower East Side for 30 years and worked at the school for 20.
At P.S. 188, Ms. Rosales said, students in temporary housing do not have a monopoly on trauma or difficult circumstances.
On a recent spring day, a slight second-grader ran up to his teacher in the hallway to say that a classmate had been hitting him. Before the teacher had a chance to respond, he whipped around and started screaming curses, threatening his classmate with language that would be shocking from an adult. From a child so small, the words were only sad. He has a home, a school staff member said, as well as a sick family member and experience in foster care.
“I would say 80 percent of our kids could benefit from some kind of counseling,” said Jessie Solomon-Greenbaum, who worked as a therapist at P.S. 188 until earlier this year, with a nonprofit group called the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services.
Some children are separated from their parents or caregivers, perhaps for reasons related to immigration. Many are surrounded by violence in the community that elevates their sensitivity to danger. There is domestic violence — one of the leading reason families end up in the shelter system, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. There is instability. Nearly two dozen children are in foster care. And for almost all of them, there is poverty.
While being uprooted from home can correlate with lower attendance and slipping test scores, teachers at P.S. 188 emphasized that a child’s residence in temporary housing does not tell much about him or her.
Milagros Ramirez, a dual-language teacher, has taught at the Island School for nearly 20 years and grew up in the area.
By now, she knows the address of the shelter across the street, so when she is handed records for new students with that familiar marker, she knows where they are staying. But, she said, she does not know anything else.
“I’ve had kids who are so great and so well behaved” who are staying in a shelter, she said. “You can’t go by, ‘Just because they live there, they behave a certain way.’ You can’t stereotype them.
“The only thing you can expect,” she continued, “is that they don’t have books, don’t have pencils. When I see a kid from the shelter on my list, we start begging. Do you have any book bags upstairs?”
For all of the challenges they bring to school, they are still just children. Ms. Inoa, the first-grade teacher, said many of her new students stood up on their first day in class and announced their living situation without a hint of shame.
“The kids say, ‘Oh, I’m new,’” Ms. Inoa said. “‘I’m from the shelter.’”
Services Beyond Education
Just before Christmas, two students in Ms. Ramirez’s second-grade class came to school wearing matching shoes, simple black sneakers with a blue-and-white Toms label affixed to the back. They had plenty of company marching the halls that day, because the school had received hundreds of pairs of the shoes for students, their siblings and even their parents.
In the spring, the halls were a parade of matching backpacks, navy or red, from another school giveaway, all part of an expansive view of what a school provides.
The Island School is part of the city’s Community Schools program, a longstanding initiative taken up by the Education Department to integrate more support for students and families, like counseling and health clinics, into schools with needy populations. The de Blasio administration has pumped $103 million into its Community Schools program this year at 130 schools.
But while P.S. 188 only recently joined the Community Schools program, it has been offering the same kinds of services for more than 15 years.
About 20 years ago, there was a break-in at the school during spring recess, Barbara Slatin, the principal at the time, said. It turned out that those who had forced their way inside were students. Ms. Slatin decided that the school should have been open, she said, so she began expanding its hours and tacking on services for families.
Today, the building is open on Saturdays, during the summer and every weekday until 6 p.m. It has five social workers, English classes for parents and a washer and dryer that families will be able to use for free. Lawyers come in once a month to help with issues like immigration. And during the winter holiday season, every child gets a present.
At a school like P.S. 188, what does success look like?
On the standardized state tests taken every year, its scores are flatly disappointing. Only 9 percent of its students met state standards in English last year, compared with 30 percent of students citywide. Just 14 percent of children scored at grade level in math, less than half of the citywide rate of 35 percent.
But over the past three years, nearly 50 of its students have been accepted at some of the city’s most competitive high schools, including Brooklyn Technical, Stuyvesant and Millennium, Ms. Ramos said. Of the three high schools that students from the Island School attended the most last year, two have above-average graduation rates, while the other caters to children who are still learning English.
On annual school surveys, families and teachers give the school and its principal very high ratings. Teachers say they trust the principal and one another. Students say they feel safe and respected, and that they know what their teachers want them to learn. At the Island School, there are outbursts and fights, but the hallways usually feel calm. Children walk from class to class in neat rows, or a rough approximation of them.
To Ms. Ramos, when she looks back at the end of the school year and asks herself how the school did, her definition of success reaches far outside the classroom. Is a child who needs counseling now receiving it? Did a father write a résumé? Did a mother get a job?
“We have so many families who come in with so many issues,” Ms. Ramos said. “Success is how much we have done for the family, not just for the child.”
But as hard as many of the teachers and administrators try to reach students and their parents, the moment they break through, the family might be gone.
“My caseload revolves quite a bit,” said Eddy Polanco, a guidance counselor for the elementary students. “As much as we hate to see them go, often when they leave, it’s because they’ve found an apartment. So we’re happy for them.”