Learning on the Move

Posted on 17. May, 2010 by in THE RIGHT TO AN EDUCATION

by Dale W. Eisinger, with additional reporting by Alana Casanova-Burgess and Eleanor Miller

On a recent weekday evening, Shaquana Walston walked out of the PATH Center in the Bronx, New York City’s intake office for homeless families, her three kids in tow.

They had waited for over eight hours in the office, only to be told she and her children—Skye, 10, Drachir, 12, and Devin, 15—were ineligible for shelter housing.

A mother’s voice: Kimetra Dantzler

by Matt Robinson

Despite being homeless for 11 months and living in three different shelters, Kimetra Dantzler’s kids are still attending school. But with constant disruptions,  it’s hard for them to focus on schoolwork, she said. Dantzler, 32, is a mother of four and has two children in the sixth grade at Promise Academy Charter School in Harlem.

“They’ve been teased about being homeless, being in the shelter system.

“I hate the fact that I have to put my kids through this,” Walston said, with her children standing next to her. “And then you come here to try and get help, but they don’t care. I had to take my kids out of school today to come over here. Tonight I guess they’ll study in the car.”

Walston and her children have moved four times in the last three years because of her trouble finding a job and being forced from home to home at the behest of relatives. She came to the PATH Center hoping to be placed in a shelter for the night. Instead, the single mother found herself faced with living in her car.

“I know this is stressful on my kids,” said Walston, who often shuttles her children around when looking for shelter.

“It’s just incredibly difficult and stressful for kids,” said Jennifer Pringle, director for the New York State Technical Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYS-TEACHS). “There’s no privacy, there’s no quiet space where kids can do their homework. And then the stress the parents are under in finding permanent housing and dealing with having just lost their housing. These kinds of emotional stresses that are on families are just incredible, and I think that manifests itself in many different ways on kids.”

Listen: Shaquana talks about what it’s like to be part of the shelter system:

Homeless students miss school more often, have higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, and are held back more often than students with permanent housing, Pringle said. Her statement is echoed in reports and articles by educators, advocates for the homeless, and researchers.

Walston’s own struggles took her small family from state to state. When the relatives she lived with in New York City told her to leave, she moved in with others in Virginia. Once there, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) approved her Section 8 status – meaning she would receive a voucher to rent an apartment in the city. So she quit her $9-an-hour job to come back to New York, thinking she would be able to find a home.

But then NYCHA said her application “had been pulled out of turn” and that she was ineligible for assistance. After seeking refuge in a family shelter in East New York for four months, the family was asked to leave. DHS determined they had relatives who could house them, despite Walston’s statements that the relatives would not accept her.

They are now faced with living in Walston’s car, moving from place to place as they try to find a home. Depending on where they end up, her children, although they currently attend school, may be faced with the prospect of switching schools again.

“The biggest problem that homelessness causes for academics is that kids end up moving schools,” said Dr. John Buckner, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Chldren’s Hospital. Buckner has studied the effects of homelessness on children for more than thirty years. He said children missing school because of the complications parents face in chasing down a home is all too common.

And of course, grades and other indicators of performance suffer.

“The simple correlation between mobility and educational performance is disturbing,” said Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of the N.Y.U. Institute for Social Policy. She published a paper on homelessness and education last November.

“Whether it’s moving schools or moving neighborhoods, or moving neighborhoods and schools, kids who move schools do so much poorer than students who move less often,” Schwartz said.

One teacher in New York City’s public school system – who still works part-time and asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her pension – said educating homeless students is difficult because of the simple lack of a paper trail.

“The children would move so much their records never actually caught up with them, so as a teacher I had to constantly try to figure out what each child knew,” she said. “Many of these children had such spotty attendance it was nearly impossible to decide on promotion. Very often the children would be in Queens one day and next in the Bronx if an apartment was available. No thought or consideration was given to consistency in their education.”

But even beyond dealing with mobility, living without permanent housing can be incredibly straining.

“They can’t do the things they want to do when they come from school because we have to be over there in case people from DHS [Department of Homeless Services] have questions for me,” Walston said. “It’s like you’re in prison. You get to come out to take the kids to school, then you have to come right back in.”

Listen: Shaquana discusses the effects of shelter life on her children

According to education specialists and child development experts, Walston’s children and the thousands of other homeless kids and teenagers across the city are negatively effected in academic performance. The lack of stability is the main detriment, as children constantly moving face stress from the rigors of mobility and adapting to shelter life.

Because the children are not allowed to be left unattended in the shelter, they must go with her everywhere, or face being alone in the car or on the street.

“It’s stressful,” she added, wiping away tears. “It’s really stressful. As a single mom, I know it’s stressful on my children to have to wake up in this place every morning and deal with the every day nonsense.”

“We have to get up earlier and when we go to school we come from a shelter when everyone else is coming from home,” said 12-year-old Drachir quietly.

But strong role models can help keep these students stay on top. In 2003, Buckner published a study on “resilient” homeless students, finding that many who succeeded in school had strong parental support. Students were deemed resilient based on mental health and self-regulatory skills. The numbers are low – only 29 percent of students in homelessness were considered resilient, meaning they had the emotional well-being and support systems necessary to succeed in school.

Walston’s children represent both sides of the academic struggle. Her two daughters are doing well.

“She’s on honor roll, we just found out today,” she said, pointing to Drachir, who’s in 6th grade. And Skye, the 4th grader, is a “peer mediator.”

Though 15-year-old Devin is having a harder time – he’s in 8th grade and in a class for kids with learning disabilities – he too is getting support from his mom. Walston knows he needs it.

“I’m tired of jumping around with my kids,” Walston said. “They need stability.”

Right to an Education

Related Stories:
The McKinney-Vento Act: Ensuring Rights for the Homeless 

Student Homelessness: A New York City Public School Teacher Speaks

After School, Homeless Kids Find Few Options

Operation Backpack: Highlighting the Costs of a “Free” Education

Kids Need to Feel Support, says Principal Ben Shuldiner

For Homeless Families, a Changing Landscape


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