The number of homeless students in Chicago Public Schools has more than doubled over the past five years, but advocates believe the district is still undercounting them and CPS officials acknowledge there are problems with its tracking system.
CPS data show the homeless population is on pace to rise again this school year. As of Feb. 28, the number of students identified as homeless during the school year had increased 18 percent over the same time last year, rising to 6,945 from 5,856. Last June, 8,549 students had been counted as homeless during the year, up from 3,786 five years earlier.
Schools with the highest numbers of homeless students are sprinkled throughout the city, according to Pat Rivera, manager of the district’s Homeless Education Program. Those schools include Beidler and Lawndale elementaries on the West Side; Senn High and McCutcheon Elementary on the North Side; and Beethoven and Attucks elementaries and South Shore High on the South Side.
Advocates also say CPS has aggravated the problems homeless students face by closing schools under its Renaissance 2010 plan.
Rene Heybach, an attorney for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, says the closings violate a federal consent decree because shutting schools down prevents homeless students from returning to their home school after summer break, which the decree requires.
The coalition filed an enforcement action against CPS in federal court Sept. 7, the first day of school. In January, the two sides reached an interim agreement stating that students affected by 10 closings last year will be assessed and referred to social services if needed.
The case is still pending, however, and Heybach says CPS has objected to disclosing such information as the detailed reasons for closings, students’ mobility patterns, and funding to help students transition to new schools.
“2010 is a massive displacement of these children,” says Heybach. “CPS did nothing to assess the impact of this. It was the most un-child-centered initiative that has ever been launched with respect to homeless children.”
Heybach wonders why CPS doesn’t re-open closed schools by the next fall rather than a year later, “so there doesn’t have to be a diaspora all over the city. There’s no answer [from the district] so far because, what answer could there be?”
But CPS spokeswoman Sandy Rodriguez says transforming a closed school takes a year because it requires several steps: forming a transition advisory council of community residents to make recommendations about the new school; selecting the new school after proposals are submitted; hiring staff; and recruiting students.
“We want to have a competitive process for different groups to come in and bid,” says Jeanne Nowaczewski, director of new schools development for CPS. “That’s the essence of Renaissance 2010. It’s nearly impossible to do that when you only have a summer, or four or five months.”
Rivera says the district will be more pro-active in working with families affected by the three closings slated for this year, since they were announced in February rather than June.
“We have the opportunity to work with those families to make sure the children do get enrolled in their new school before the end of the school year,” Rivera says. “We can work with providing transportation services and make sure the transition goes smoothly.”
Inflated figures or undercount?
The definition of homelessness, established under federal education law, includes families that are doubled-up for economic reasons, Rivera says.
Although some might not think of such families as homeless, they have a difficult time proving residency in an attendance area and often don’t stay put very long. Counting doubled-up families inflates the numbers, CPS officials say.
“You think of homeless, you think destitute, nowhere to go,” says Leonard Kenebrew, principal of South Shore High School, which has 80 to 100 homeless students on its campus, CPS figures show. (The campus includes the remaining seniors at the original high school plus four small schools.)
“But many times, they’re with relatives. That exacerbates the percentage. They say 80 to 100, but the number of truly homeless students might be 10 to 20.”
Heybach maintains the district’s figures would probably be higher if CPS’ tracking system were more airtight. In fact, the district’s count is determined primarily from emergency contact forms that allow parents to check off their living circumstances without using the word “homeless.”
The form is a good way to encourage homeless families to identify themselves, Heybach says, “but it can’t be the only way. We discovered in the course of our litigation that [it] was not being used at all schools.” CPS keeps a database of families who have identified themselves as homeless on the form or by otherwise informing their school.
(The database helps the district determine where services are most needed, she adds.)
As evidence of undercounting, Heybach cites a study based on 1990 Census data and reports from the City of Chicago, which estimated that 22,000 children and youth under age 21 had been homeless over the course of a year.
“What they’re counting is so many less than that, that raises a flag for us,” Heybach says. “A lot of people are ashamed of it.” Finding uncounted homeless students takes effort, she adds. “Some schools are trying; others, it’s not on their radar screen.”
Rivera agrees that CPS’ count is “probably lower than the actual numbers of homeless students out there” and points out that shame and loss of privacy play a role. “Sometimes families don’t want to let people know they’re homeless,” she says.
Young people who are not living with an adult “definitely don’t want to let people know—even if there’s services attached to it.”
Self-reporting is even less likely for families who have stayed in the same attendance area and don’t need the transportation services, Rivera adds. “The embarrassment factor would outweigh any services they would receive.”
Kenebrew says undercounting is also due to the lack of electronic documentation of students’ moves. “Right now, it’s just a paper trail,” he says. CPS is installing a new electronic student tracking system that should help solve the problem.
‘They need so much’
Homelessness creates academic and behavior problems for students, school officials say.
As families move, students can choose to keep attending their home school to avoid the possibility of falling behind at a new school, Rivera says. But doing so often involves a significant commute, and “there’s an attendance problem that sometimes affects academic progress,” she points out.
Jeannine M. Wolf, principal of Lawndale Community Academy, which enrolls about 200 homeless students, says the lack of stability creates a range of problems.
“They have a harder time with their studies,” she says. “If their behavior is not up to par, we have a problem getting a relative to come and see about them. The kids stay with an aunt one night, an uncle another night. It’s very difficult to get someone to follow through.”
Among other services, Lawndale has a parent advocate who provides counseling for homeless families and a student advocate who helps run a Friday tutoring program for homeless students.
“We have a lot of resources, but they need so much,” Wolf says. “I don’t feel we have enough.”
Lawndale’s parent advocate, Linda Little, finds clothing donations and makes sure students keep coming to school, doing their homework and generally succeeding. “If [students] miss two days in a row, I’m doing a home visit to make sure they’re O.K.,” she says. “Most of them want to come.”
Still, Heybach points out that homeless students have become valedictorians and should not all be lumped together as “problem” students.
“Any time you’ve got kids who lack adequate housing, that’s going to play into what they accomplish,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to identify them, provide them transportation and make sure they get fee waivers and other things they need to stay on track.” CPS reimburses schools for waived fees.
Diane Nilan, director of Project Reach, a state-funded program that monitors 305 districts in northeastern Illinois (outside Chicago), says student homelessness is not unique to CPS.
Outside Chicago, the most severe problem is in southern Cook County, but Nilan says homelessness affects students even in more affluent locations such as DuPage County and Barrington.
Schools and students deal with a host of challenges, including “mobility, an unsuitable environment—shelters are terrible places for kids to grow up and do homework and have a normal life—lack of school supplies, transportation and truancy issues,” says Nilan.
Beyond that, there may be a larger number of homeless students who are not identified properly, Nilan says. “There’s a countless number of kids that we’re afraid are [going] un-schooled.”
Ed Finkel is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.