homeless help

Three things to know about the record number of homeless students in New York City schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose (center) answers questions from lawmakers at a hearing on Wednesday.

One in ten New York City students was homeless at some point last school year — a staggering number of vulnerable students who pose a special challenge for schools and city officials.

The rise in homeless students is tied to an overall increase in homelessness in the city, where a record number of people now stay in shelters. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has scrambled to serve this growing population by creating more shelters and affordable housing — though critics say not enough — while his education department focuses on keeping homeless students in school.

At a City Council hearing Wednesday, lawmakers grilled city officials about their strategy for meeting the needs of students in temporary housing, who tend to do worse in class than their peers and miss many days of school.

Here are three big takeaways from the hearing about the city’s homeless students and the administration’s response to this crisis.

There are twice as many homeless students in New York City as total students in Boston

More than 111,500 public school students experienced homelessness last school year, according to state data released this week, or roughly one in ten students in the city’s district and charter schools. Those students may stay in homeless shelters, motels or crammed into friends’ or relatives’ apartments.

That represents a 6 percent increase over the previous year, and is the largest number since the state began keeping records. Overall, roughly one in eight of city students experienced homelessness at some point in the last five years, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness.

“Homelessness is at a crisis level in this city,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who heads the education committee.

The city is boosting resources at schools with the most homeless students.

The education department is deploying extra programs and services to accommodate more homeless students, but acknowledged there could be room for improvement, top officials said at Wednesday’s hearing.

Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose said the city is dispatching social workers to 43 elementary schools with high rates of homeless students, an increase from last year. She also pointed to $10.3 million her department has spent on programs like shelter-based reading clubs and hiring staffers whose job is make sure homeless students make it to school.

The city has expanded its network of “community schools,” which are filled with social services for students and their families. It also launched a bus service last year for homeless students in grades K-6 so they can stay in the same school even if their families are relocated to distant shelters.

There have been “small signs” that the city’s programs are paying off, Rose told lawmakers after two hours of questioning — before adding that much hard work remains.

“We believe there is an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done,” she said.

The city is attacking the issue, advocates say — but not quickly enough.

Lawmakers peppered education department and homeless services officials with questions about whether the city’s plan is enough for students who struggle with the most severe effects of poverty.

They asked whether there are enough education department staff in shelters, why those staff members must only attain a high school diploma, whether the city could do more to make sure homeless students aren’t regularly bouncing between schools, and why the education department doesn’t offer bus transportation for preschool students in shelters.

At one point, after suggesting the city create a task force to study problems facing students in temporary housing, City Councilman Stephen Levin suggested the city wasn’t moving aggressively enough.

“What you’re describing is the status quo,” he said, “and the status quo is unacceptable.”

Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, said in an interview that the city is moving in the right direction — just not quickly enough.

As an example, she pointed out that more than 150 schools have populations where at least 10 percent of students live in shelters — yet the city is only sending 43 extra social workers to schools with high homeless populations. The city should raise that number to 100, she said.

“The city has taken considerable steps,” Levine said. “But the statistics show the significant need for the city to redouble its efforts.”

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.