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Brooklyn's Homeless Crisis Could Lead to Shake-Up of Education Supervisors

By Camille Bautista | October 20, 2016 10:59am
 The Community Education Council for School District 16 formed an ad-hoc committee Tuesday to address help for homeless children in neighborhood schools.
The Community Education Council for School District 16 formed an ad-hoc committee Tuesday to address help for homeless children in neighborhood schools.
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Brooklyn's homeless students crisis could result in the shake-up of staffers working to help them.

Bak Harris, the Department of Education’s senior program manager for Students in Temporary Housing, said he was looking to recommend eliminating the separate designation of “Brooklyn North” and “Brooklyn South” — both of which each have a single specialist overseeing the department's work with homeless children — and instead assign them to the whole borough.

The department is also considering hiring a third specialist.

STH content experts supervise and support DOE shelter-based staff, conduct trainings for shelter and school employees and offer resources to provide services to homeless students, among other responsibilities.

Currently there are two content experts for each borough, officials said. In Brooklyn, one is designated to Brooklyn North, which covers seven school districts —  two of which had the borough’s highest percentages of homeless students in the 2014-2015 school year.

“You’re telling me that District 16, District 19 and District 23 have the highest and there’s only one representative in your office for Brooklyn North?” NeQuan McLean, president of District 16’s Community Education Council, asked at an informational meeting at P.S. 5 Tuesday.

Comparatively, there is one content expert also assigned to Brooklyn South, where parents say the concentration of homeless students is not nearly as high.

“We’re going to do an equitable distribution of content experts for the students in temporary housing population,” Harris said about his suggestion for the borough. 

“We feel that things should be more district-based so the superintendent can reach out to someone and a content expert is not overworked trying to work multiple districts.”

Bedford-Stuyvesant and northern Crown Heights’ School District 16 and Brownsville’s School District 23 both had a homeless student population of 15.2 percent in the 2014-15 academic year, a report from the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness shows.

More than 1,200 students in District 16 were homeless that year and 735 of those children lived in shelters.

A 2016 report on student homelessness from the city’s Independent Budget Office found that distributing content experts equally by borough “has been a source of contention” due to the uneven distribution of homeless families across the city.

The Bronx, for example, serves more families with students in temporary housing than any other borough, the report details, but has just two content experts.

Harris added Tuesday that he will send his recommendation this week to “eliminate the Brooklyn barrier that really hurts students in temporary housing.”

The suggested change of creating one Brooklyn unit instead of a separate north and south would allow the agency to have more supervision with family assistance and “greater access” to superintendents serving the borough’s families, he said.

No formal recommendation has been made, according to officials.

“We are always working to strengthen protocols and update staffing models and are continuing to explore several options before making a formal recommendation,” DOE spokeswoman Toya Holness said.

“We have been reviewing staffing changes, distribution and assignments and will ensure that any changes best support students living in temporary housing across the city.”

The agency looks at data and considers several factors in its decision, including the number of homeless students living in each borough and school district, according to the DOE.

Homelessness in city schools is growing, according to recent studies. A total of 105,445 students attending New York City schools in 2015-16 identified as homeless, data from the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students found.

That number is up from 86,694 homeless students the previous academic year.

At Tuesday’s meeting, which was organized by CEC16, DOE officials discussed services already offered to homeless students at city schools.

Students in temporary housing can be immediately enrolled in their closest school, officials said. They can receive transportation and schools offer funds that can go towards uniforms, trips, glasses, emergency supplies and other needs.

STH initiatives also include after-school based literacy programs and specially-funded things that include trips and college tours.

Still, CEC members were alarmed at the distribution of staff for Brooklyn North.

“It took us to call for a meeting before DOE realized that Brooklyn North needed more assistance,” McLean said, adding that the agency’s Borough Field Support center should be held accountable.

“Once again DOE has failed the community and it’s unacceptable… they continue to be reactive instead of proactive.”

With talks of hiring another content expert for the borough, CEC16 members said they hope they can continue to work with the district’s assigned staffer, Wayne Harris, who has been working with them “diligently” in the past, McLean added.

The CEC has formed an ad-hoc committee for students in transitional homes and plans to meet with elected officials and community stakeholders to discuss the next course of action.