Educating our homeless students

Joanne Bullaro (left), the chapter leader at PS 100 in Brooklyn, and Karen AlforMiller PhotographyJoanne Bullaro (left), the chapter leader at PS 100 in Brooklyn, and Karen Alford, the UFT vice president for elementary schools, get some Hula Hoop tips from an expert at the annual holiday luncheon organized by the UFT and the Coalition for the Homeless at UFT headquarters on Dec. 10. With affordable housing increasingly out of reach in our city, more families are living doubled up, in transitional housing or in homeless shelters. Homelessness in the city is at its highest levels since the Great Depression, but it’s been an issue for years.

Our public schools feel the impact: An estimated one out of 10 New York City students (a whopping 105,445) was homeless at some point during the past school year.

That’s a big reason why the UFT, in collaboration with the Coalition for the Homeless, organizes special events for homeless children each year. My Elementary School Division hosts an annual holiday party and mounts a toy drive while the union’s Middle School Division hosts a Thanksgiving luncheon and collects new coats, hats and gloves.

Students who are living in shelters or transitional housing confront a range of challenges and stresses that can interfere with learning. Their needs are a year-round concern for public school educators.

These students endure long commutes, oftentimes traveling from shelters in one borough to their schools in another because that’s where their roots are. The instability in these children’s lives results in high absenteeism and midyear transfers to new schools. Principals are allocated $100 for each student in temporary housing. They exhaust that money by the time they give out a few uniforms.

When you talk to city educators, you learn of the many creative ways they help students in need without making them feel marginalized. If it’s a uniform, they keep extras in the classroom so kids feel they are a part of the school culture. Some schools have a washer and dryer in the building. When educators heard parents say, “I had to keep Jasmine out of school today, she didn’t have clean clothes,” they solved that problem.

The union is doing its part, too. We formed a partnership this year with online supply company Yoobi so that any time a UFT member buys school supplies from Yoobi (at www.yoobi.com/uft), the company donates an equal number of supplies to students in need. This fall, Yoobi donated school supplies for 33,000 elementary school children and a classroom kit for every elementary school teacher in Brooklyn’s District 14. Those donations are invaluable for families who cannot afford basic supplies.

As an educator, you have to be cognizant that this is a very vulnerable population. We must find the resources and supports for these students.

“We do a clothing drive where families can shop for what they need, including backpacks filled with supplies,” says Sarah Tugel, the chapter leader of PS 6 in the Bronx. “We tell them, ‘Oh, you won a raffle!’ so they don’t feel singled out.”

Tugel said she and her colleagues have discovered that people are generous when they find out the school is a Title I school filled with students with many needs. “There’s nothing you can’t get for free if you really want it,” she said. “You just keep trying, and you’d be amazed at how many people want to support you once they know what you’re doing.”

PS 156 in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, a UFT community learning school with more than 160 students coming from five nearby shelters, supports these students and their parents in a variety of ways. The school distributes clothing and food and offers homework help. It works with the Leadership Program, a community-based organization that goes into the local shelters to lead workshops for parents throughout the year on topics such as responding to challenging behaviors and understanding a child’s learning style.

“We make sure we meet them where they are,” said Sharon Sinclair, the community school director at PS 156.

When the PS 156 staff hosts parent workshops at the school, Sinclair said she will sit with parents while they are participating “so I can hear their voices and learn what they think works.”

Mavis Yon, a 3rd-grade teacher and chapter leader at PS 156, said the school has launched an “art therapy program” though it doesn’t label the program that or label the children who participate. “The kids can just come in and express their feelings through art,” she said. “We create a space where they feel comfortable.”

Both schools also focus on mental health and wellness. For PS 6, that includes a whole-school Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program; and for PS 156, it includes on-site mental health counseling for students and families to remove what Sinclair calls the “blame and shame” that can prevent people from seeking support.

Whatever type of public school you work in, Sinclair said, the bottom line is “students need to feel that they belong.”

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