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New report shines light on homeless students' achievement gap

Homeless students in New York City fared better on state assessment tests than students in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse who had never been homeless.

Meanwhile, more than 16 percent of students in the Buffalo Public Schools who took the state tests two years ago were either homeless or had been homeless at one time. In either case, those students were about half as likely to meet state math and reading standards compared to their classmates who have always had their own place to call home.

Those are some of the findings from a new report that provides a glimpse of homelessness among students across New York State, the toll it can take on their education, and the fact that strong school support – which can vary from district to district – can make a difference.

“We need to act with urgency to ensure that schools better serve these vulnerable students and provide them with the supports they need to succeed academically,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York.

The not-for-profit, which advocates for students of color and low income, was part of a statewide coalition that released the report Monday to raise awareness of the issue. It comes at a time when new federal education policy requires states to track academic outcomes for students in temporary housing – those who live in a shelter, are doubled up with friends or family or on their own.

The report, specifically, looked at assessment data for grades 3 to 8 during the 2015-16 school year, which showed:

• The extent of the problem: One in 10 students who took the tests statewide were either homeless or formerly homeless at some time since enrolling in public schools. That’s more than 90,000 students. In Buffalo, it was roughly 16 percent, or more than 1,900 kids.

• Achievement gaps: Twenty percent of homeless students in New York State were proficient in reading, compared to 40 percent of students who had never been homeless. In Buffalo, 10 percent of the homeless students were proficient in reading, compared to 18 percent who had never been homeless.

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Results were similar for math.

• Lingering effects of homelessness: There was little difference in reading and math proficiency when comparing homeless students and students who were formerly homeless.

“Students who have previously experienced homelessness continue to suffer academically even after they are permanently housed,” the report states. “The emphasis on formerly homeless students is also significant because many students will cycle between temporary and permanent housing at different points in their academic experience.”

In Buffalo, 10 percent of homeless students were proficient in reading, compared to 9 percent of formerly homeless students. In math, proficiency was only slightly higher among those students who were formerly homeless.

• Wide variations in how schools are serving the homeless: Students in temporary housing can do well, which was the case for 164 schools across the state where homeless students did better than the average for all students in reading and 169 schools in which they did better than average in math.

The report pointed to homeless students in New York City, who out-performed students who had never been homeless in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse.

“It is important to remember that the context for homeless student achievement is often the school district where they are enrolled,” the report states.

• Homelessness is not just an urban issue: More than one in four students who were formerly homeless attend school outside of the state’s largest urban districts. In the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda schools, 6 percent of students taking the test were either homeless or had been homeless, while in Cheektowaga it was 9 percent.

When contacted late Monday afternoon, officials with the Buffalo school district had not yet seen the report and did not want to comment until they had a chance to read it.

The student data, however, should serve as a starting point to have a serious conversation and look at best practices, said Brenda McDuffie, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Urban League.

"It's unacceptable," McDuffie said of the achievement gaps. "We have to do something so all of our children have opportunities and are prepared for those opportunities in the future."

The Buffalo Urban League was one of the nearly two dozen members of the statewide coalition of civil rights, education, parent and business organizations involved in the report. The coalition has been focused on using new federal legislation to improve the quality of education in New York.

The new federal education law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires states to report on academic outcomes for students in temporary housing. McDuffie likes the new policy because it allows for a more detailed look at the data to determine where the gaps are and, more importantly, to develop a response.

Other members of the coalition include Every Person Influences Children and the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo.

“Buffalo has a long history of underserving its neediest students,” said Samuel L. Radford III, DPCC president, “and this new data underscore just how far the city has to go filling the opportunity gaps that hold too many children back from a bright future.”

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