By Ralph da Costa Nunez
President, Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness
There are nearly 80,000 homeless students who attend New York City public schools. While many do well and stay on track, many face the risk of a jeopardized academic future. For these students, remaining at grade level is challenging as constant upheaval and family trauma wreak havoc on their ability to study and learn. Unlike families with resources, there are no opportunities for private tutors or accelerated learning programs to help keep them on track. As such homeless students are significantly more likely than their classmates to permanently fall behind and are more likely to, at best, repeat a grade, and at worst, drop out. With most homeless students spending at least a full academic year living in a state of housing instability, we simply cannot afford to miss out on an opportunity to help keep their learning and achievement on track. Investing in after-school programs for students living in shelters is cost effective, smart, and simply the right thing to do.
The average homeless child moves approximately two and a half times each year. Studies have shown that for every move, it takes around six months for a child to recover academically. Considering this, homeless students are already facing a disadvantage of being a year and a half behind the rest of their classmates just by nature of changing addresses. To say that the odds are stacked against them is at best an understatement.
In the 2011-12 school year, 6,273 homeless students had to repeat a year of school, at an estimated cost of $135 million. The cost for repeating a grade is approximately $21,000 per student, roughly the same as a year of out of state college tuition for a public university. Alarmingly, homeless students often repeat more than one grade and the likelihood of repeating a grade grows exponentially as students get older. In these cases, it is clear that the cost of doing nothing only grows exponentially.
How do we stem the tide? For thousands of homeless students, shelters can be a powerful stabilizing force, and after-school programs provide targeted and effective support. These programs can cost as little as $3,000 per student, and are an unparalleled catalyst for learning and academic success, most pointedly helping students narrow their achievement gap. Furthermore, these programs can be valuable resources not only to those living in shelters, but also to children in need who live in the surrounding community—many of whom may be on the cusp of homelessness themselves.
Consider these two competing images. In one, a homeless 14-year-old enters a seventh grade classroom for the third consecutive September. He becomes more isolated as he loses contact with friends, is defined by the education system as a failure, and is perceived as a drain on scant resources. It is no surprise he continues to get low grades, tests poorly, and eventually drops out of high school. This is often a formula for costly scenarios such as involvement in delinquent activity, trouble with the law, becoming a young father, unemployment, and a reliance on public assistance. In another, a 12-year-old attends an after-school program upstairs from her family’s living quarters in shelter. She has fun, makes friends, feels included, and most importantly is exposed to the joy of reading, sharpens her math skills, awakens her curiosity in science, explores the art and science of basic computer coding, participates in yoga classes for her health and well-being, and ultimately restores the natural curiosity innate in all children, all the while enhancing her test scores. Over the course of the year, the first scenario will cost the city seven times more than investing in the second. You tell me – in which scenario are public dollars better spent?