Sitting attentively, smartly dressed with a black cardigan over her school uniform, 14-year-old K. looks like a model student. She’s the sort of middle schooler who wastes no time getting her homework done, though it would be inaccurate to call it that. K., who’s in foster care, has no permanent home she and her seven-year-old sister can call their own.
Her school, therefore, has become a haven. Like others uptown, it is fortifying its Students in Temporary Housing (STH) program.
“Since I’ve been to school, everything that I need, I have,” says K., an eighth grader at the Renaissance Leadership Academy on West 126th Street. (Because most classmates don’t know her homeless status, the Uptowner is withholding her name.) “If you need anything, like a shirt or something, you just tell the parent coordinator and they’ll get it. Say, if you need lunch, they’ll buy it for you.”
“We do have students that are in shelters and they’ve been removed from their homes,” says Academy principal Qadir Dixon. “We have a lot of single-parent families—mom is really mom and dad. We have a lot of grandparents that are raising their grandchildren. It’s an array.” At school, “when you come here, you come to another family environment.”
The number of homeless students in New York City has quadrupled since 2008, data gathered by the city’s Department of Education indicates. In Harlem, too, “the incidence of student homelessness has significantly increased over the years,” says Emily Kramer of the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS).
- During the 2007-2008 school year, city data showed a total of 4,841 students with no fixed residence in Harlem Districts 4, 5 and 6. Two years later, the number of homeless students there had risen 41 percent to 6,531. District 6, encompassing Washington Heights and Inwood, had one of the city’s highest populations of homeless students. Citywide, the highest number of homeless students attended schools in District 10 in the Bronx; the fewest were in Bayside, Queens.
In Harlem, more than half of those students categorized as homeless lived in shelters, followed closely by those living in multiple-family households, where families were forced to move in with relatives or friends. Nearly 500 students were classified as “unsheltered” or unaccompanied, including those not in the custody of a parent or legal guardian.
With so many students in temporary housing, schools like Harlem School of the Arts on St. Nicholas Avenue are expanding their Students in Temporary Housing programs.
“We look out for them,” says Aubrey Lynch II, dance director at the arts school. “We’re designing programs to work with organizations like Harlem Children’s Zone and once we get these new programs on their feet, we’re looking for new ways to take care of kids who are dropping out of school.”
At West Harlem’s P.S. 129, where seven percent of students are homeless, grants the school receives are allocated to “incentive trips” such as excursions to see “The Lion King” on Broadway. “We try to give them a little extra,” says P.S. 129’s Community Coordinator for Student Affairs Sherry Cyrus. “A lot of times we find that they do need a little extra attention academically. Perhaps based on the their home environment, it may not be conducive to them doing homework,” she explained. “We get together and identify those students, and then we collaboratively decide what special projects we can put them on.”
Renaissance takes a spirited approach to accommodating homeless students. Beyond the city’s Title I funding to schools with high percentages of disadvantaged children, the school fulfills the requirements of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act by providing additional support to homeless students.
“We’ve had students in temporary housing who were leaving here five o’ clock and we weren’t sure if they were going to get another meal ‘til breakfast, so staff members got sandwiches and Oodles of Noodles and they would give care packages to take home,” says Dixon, its principal.
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, schools and local education agencies must have liaisons work with shelters to make sure homeless children are enrolled in school. Since the onset of the U.S. economic downturn, loss of homes have led families like Alana’s to seek temporary refuge in shelters.
A resident of the Old Broadway Family Center on West 126thStreet since August 2010, Alana (who requested anonymity) says finding a school for her five-year-old girl was one of the first things the shelter helped her with as she interviewed for a job. “Even when I needed an after-school program, the school liaison was the one who
found one for my daughter,” says Alana, whose daughter Zara is in kindergarten at P.S. 129 and goes to the Antioch After School Academy on West 125thStreet. “They come to P.S. 129 and pick up my daughter and then take her back. They do activities and stuff like that—it’s supposed to be $ 60 a week but I don’t actually have to pay for it.”
Families have escaped domestic violence can also swell the ranks of homeless students. Assigned to a one-bedroom apartment in Old Broadway by the Department of Homeless Services, Grace, a mother of two sons, is working with its education liaison to enroll her son in a school nearby. “He used to go to school near my former shelter,” she says, referring to a domestic violence shelter she and her boys shared an apartment with another family for four months. “Now that place is far, so I can’t take him there every day. That will cost me a lot and we have to wake up really early.” The liaison will inform her if a nearby school has space for her son, she adds, but as she looks for work, the issue grows more urgent and “I don’t want him to miss school this year,” she says.
While the state education department says homeless kids face a greater risk of encountering educational problems and dropping out, Dixon finds homeless students may have greater incentive to perform well. “When it’s time to leave at four, they’re staying ‘til 4:45 to get that extra math tutorial,” he says.
While hoping to be adopted, bright-eyed K. lives at a foster care facility on West 181st Street. One of those homeless students highly involved in her middle school’s tutorials and extracurricular programs, she looks forward to tutoring younger students as part of the school’s mentorship program. “But right now, one subject I can do better in is math,” says K., who attends math tutorials after school. She also assists the school’s flag football team coach and sings in its recording artist program, all to build a strong high school application portfolio. “One high school I want to go to is LaGuardia and I want to have at least seven portfolios…in ELA, science, Spanish, and especially music.”
Dixon says K. might well qualify for LaGuardia, the competitive music and performance arts school the film “Fame” was based on. “She’s progressed every month of every year academically. Last year, she made the honor roll, which is a goal she set. She moves around a lot but the one consistent force she has is here,” says Dixon, noting that K. began the 6th grade an unconfident student.
“When she first came in, she would have never sung in front of the entire school,” he said. “Last year, at our awards ceremony, she opened up with the school song.”