Homeless Kids: the Latest Old News

Nov 22, 2019 by

Just a few weeks ago, the banner headline of a prominent education-related online publication proclaimed “At 114,000, the number of homeless NYC students remains stubbornly high”. That was no surprise, given all the selfishness, greed, incompetence, poor planning and execution and foul politics that have prevented progress for a long time.

According to the October 28th, 2019 Chalkbeat story, the percentage of homeless students who graduate high schools is 19% less than that of other kids.  About the same percentage represents the disparity between the state reading and math tests passage rates of the same groups of students.

The City is reportedly investing $12 million on new coordinators, social workers, managers and teacher training initiatives to assist students bereft of stable housing and who are particularly prone to high absenteeism from school.

All these remedies sound good, but similar programs have been announced with great fanfare in the past and amounted to nothing in terms of visible results.

The number of homeless students now attending our schools exceeds the population of many good-sized towns, including South Bend Indiana, where Pete Buttigieg is mayor. Given the exponential growth of ruptured lives, that figure may reach the dimensions of a metropolis before long.  Already, they are more than one-tenth the student population on register in our NYC public schools alone.

Kids housed in shelters or other temporary accommodations must be emotionally resilient and have superior street-survival skills as they struggle to get by and sometimes to get away.

They learn the hard way that when you own nothing, you must take ownership of your own life at least.  There is no algorithm for that and no applicable framework that can be handed down by an educational system, even one with a budget of over $35 billion.

Homeless kids have witnessed and borne the brunt of domestic and other violence, such as the indignity of eviction. They are not necessarily poor students if schoolwork does not rank at the pinnacle of the mountain of demands on their coping skills.  When they draw inspiration from their own internal resources, they have a good shot at becoming productive adults, but when shelter, food and clothing are in short supply and they are compelled to live in the present, they can be fatally daunted by the two strikes that they see society has thrown across their plate.

These homeless students may be confused, restless and resentful, but public school teachers have the sophistication and empathy to not take personally the negative energy that may hemorrhage from these kids on a bad day. They can also understand who adeptness in bubbling ovals on standardized tests may be delayed in these kids who must grow up before their time.

They may be harder to manage in the classroom and act resistant to learning and discipline.  Maturity and world-wisdom is being thrust on them and even youth that a roof over their head do not seek that kind of precocity.

The DOE, and especially the United Federation of Teachers, require professional development that is effective in sensitizing teachers to the challenges endured by kids under unremitting stress. Public school educators are far more likely to encounter and embrace handicapped students or those otherwise hindered by dire situations such as homelessness. for all its imperfections, our public school system best reflects an institutional philosophy of caring for the “whole child”, rather than exploiting them for purposes of promoting private schools through data-enhancement and other false measurements.

Public schools don’t run on a business model and instruction and therapy for homeless students would never be a mere business decision for them as they are for certain charter and other private schools, which sometimes are the beneficiaries of groundless adulation. Public schools are the bosom of many communities.

Homelessness is at a crisis level in many big cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and here in New York.  The ridiculously mild word “unacceptable” is often used to describe it. Perhaps a stronger alternative can be found in some comprehensive lexicon.  But there’s nothing in any language to do justice to the miserable reality of innocent kids with no bread on the table or safe place to rest their heads.

Ron Isaac

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