“From a personal experience, when I was younger I had to go through the shelter system, and I had to miss a lot of school, and I missed like half of third grade. Missing a lot of school caused me to get held back. I had speaking problems, I had social problems. So we felt like the school website would show that we really want to help them out.”
–Y-PLAN Student at High School for Enterprise, Business, and Technology, speaking to Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna and Deputy Policy Director Jeff Lowell
When the Center for Cities + Schools (CC+S) launched a Y-PLAN (Youth – Plan, Learn, Act, Now!) partnership with the NYC Department of Education (DOE) in the fall of 2015, one of the first civic leaders who stepped up to engage NYC youth in addressing the city’s most vexing challenges was the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Youth homelessness is a top priority in New York City, where 1 in 8 students have experienced homelessness in the last 5 school years and where homeless students are almost twice as likely to be chronically absent (missing 20 or more days of school) than their housed peers (ICPH). Working in conjunction with the DOE team supporting Students in Temporary Housing, DHS asked students from the High School for Enterprise, Business, and Technology (EBT) the question: How can NYC leverage its resources and provide students in temporary housing with the tools they need to graduate from high school and become college and career ready?
Following the Y-PLAN research methodology, students attended a conference for the Institute of Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, site mapped local District 14 Flushing Avenue Family Shelter, and interviewed peers in their school who opened up about their personal experiences in temporary housing. The data students gathered in this process informed their recommendations, which they presented both at the DHS downtown offices on May 17, 2016, and the next day at Brooklyn Borough Hall to civic leaders, students, and educators from across the city. Their recommendations were grounded in the understanding the students in temporary housing did not have equal access to resources and opportunities as their peers. Specific recommendations to the City and NYC Department of Education included:
- Offering laptops or iPads that students in temporary housing can sign out on a weekly basis from school for homework and college/career research.
- Dedicating one college advisor for each school district to support students in temporary housing.
- Hiring college advisors for every shelter to give students in temporary housing another opportunity to immerse themselves in the next phase of their academic lives.
- Organizing a special citywide graduation reception for high school seniors in temporary housing.
Photo: Students from EBT presenting recommendations to DHS staff at their office.
These recommendations critically recognized the social, technological, and academic barriers that students in temporary housing face in graduating high school, attending college, and preparing for a career. Students at EBT saw that a lack of access to knowledge about programs and opportunities prevented their peers in temporary housing from seeing college or careers as legitimate opportunities. Thus, their recommendations to hire advisors in both shelters and schools sought to close this gap and prevent these students from falling through the cracks if they switch schools or move to a different shelter. Meanwhile, the citywide graduation reception for students in temporary housing sought to break social stigmas around homelessness and elevate the accomplishment of graduating from high school despite housing insecurity.
During the 2016-17 school year, Y-PLAN at EBT High School expanded in two directions. First, a group of student leaders from last year’s project formed an after school club to implement their recommendations.
They have already seen real-world results:
In partnership with Progress High School, EBT’s downstairs neighbor at Grand Street Campus, students donated 30 computers to Flushing Avenue Family Shelter for young people to complete homework assignments and college/career research
Additionally, students began fundraising to implement a food pantry at Grand Street Campus to support students who are food insecure a challenge to far too many students in temporary housing.
Building on this work, teacher Hyeyoung Chon designed a Y-PLAN Civics class, with 22 young people, ranging from 9th-12th grades, who focus everyday on their Y-PLAN project. Deputy Brooklyn Borough President Diana Reyna served as the civic client for EBT’s Y-PLAN class. She asked students to build on their peer’s work from the previous year to to provide recommendations to reduce absenteeism of homeless youth, by asking “How can we support students in temporary housing so that they can consistently attend and succeed in school?” Students began by site mapping their school library and counseling center in order to understand existing resources that it offers. In this process they observed a crucial fact that could impact students in temporary housing: the library and counseling center is not open after school. One of the students described her experience:
“I drew the sitemap that we did. I drew the picture of it because we wanted to get a really good perception of what we’re looking at. On certain spots we had a lot of computers, which is good because there was a whole room dedicated to computers, the only problem is that a lot of the computers weren’t working or they weren’t available to use after school. They weren’t accessible. Nobody was directing us.”
This student and others noted that while their homeless peers may reside in a shelter with limited access to Internet, computers, and quiet spaces to complete work, the school itself could leverage its library resources as a safe, comfortable, and stable place for students to complete their homework.
Photo: Students at EBT brainstorming recommendations after site mapping their school library.
Social, as well as technological, barriers stood in the way of success and consistent attendance for homeless youth, according to EBT students. After watching educational videos from the website Peak Brooklyn, the class realized that a key reason their homeless and chronically absent peers often do not attend school is because they feel disconnected or that they don’t belong. These social stigmas attached to being a homeless youth weighed heavily on the class, as many students wondered how they can change the culture of the school so that their peers feel safe speaking out and asking for help.
EBT students’ final recommendations to Deputy Reyna reflected their critical research observations. After presenting a PowerPoint and poster at the final Y-PLAN Proposal Review on April 5, students crafted a policy brief with the following recommendations:
- Add additional staff, potentially student interns, to the library to extend open hours to lunch and afterschool.
- Create social events during and after school to reach out to students in temporary housing to feel needed and to want to stay in school.
- Create an online DOE website for students in temporary housing to complete lessons where teachers can have access to view student progress.
- Design brochures that educate parents and students about programs and services that are available for students in temporary housing.
Photo: EBT students present their powerpoint at the anual Y-PLAN Proposal Review on April 4th, 2017.
On May 10th, 2017, four freshmen from EBT met at Brooklyn Borough Hall for a roundtable meeting with Deputy Reyna and her Policy Director Jeff Lowell about the issue of youth homelessness and their recommendations. For students, this presentation was the culmination of three months of intensive research and a seat at the table to inform policies in Brooklyn. For clients, it was a rare opportunity to gain authentic insight into the dynamic world of young people and a window into the way in which young people navigate the critical issue of homelessness that deeply impacts Brooklyn Borough. The students were nervous at first, but with encouragement from Deputy Reyna they spoke candidly, expressing the urgency of their recommendations and insights: “Most of the reasons why they were absent was that they weren’t feeling connected with the school, they weren’t feeling like they wanted to open up to anybody. They were just in their shell hiding away from everybody. They didn’t want to talk, and it wasn’t until someone let them know and made them realize that that it’s okay to talk, it’s okay to confide in somebody, that they want to say anything.”
Photo: Four students present their policy brief to Deputy Borough President Diana Reyna at Brooklyn Borough Hall on May 10, 2017.
Deputy Reyna and Mr. Lowell received students’ ideas with enthusiasm, recognizing the fresh expertise that students brought to these issues. Mr. Lowell noted: “It’s interesting, I do education policy, and I think before we started this work with you guys, I would have assumed that all libraries would be open after school. That’s something I’m learning just from this.”
This meeting is an example of authentic youth interaction with policymakers where youth have a seat at the table. When key civic leaders like Deputy Reyna and Mr. Lowell treat students as legitimate city stakeholders, it moves towards restructuring NYC into more equitable city, where youth are not just victims of homelessness but active players in the struggle to offer safe, affordable, housing to all residents. Moving forward from this meeting, students will work to create a budget outline of their recommendations and will organize internally at their school to change the culture to better support students in temporary housing. Meanwhile, as Deputy Reyna discussed the possibility of training and hiring students to work in the library to facilitate extended hours, she explained that “what we come up with here is going to impact not just one school, but this could change policy for the whole city of New York.”
In their two years tackling student homelessness in their community through Y-PLAN, EBT students have not only identified several concrete recommendations, they have also highlighted the need for a partnership between DHS shelters, DOE schools, and NYC leadership to impact policies and to shift the culture and stigmas attached to youth homelessness. After developing their skills and knowledge through Y-PLAN, these youth agents of change from EBT High School are poised to serve at the lynchpin of this partnership. They hold the power to bring their peers and families to the table and provide civic leaders with the local expertise and insights needed to curb the recent increases in homelessness and, in the meantime, better support the city’s young people who reside in temporary housing.