I Believe in Human Rights: Youth Homelessness and Education

Cross-posted from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Blog

For two years in a row, I have been honored to speak with the recipients of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth’s LeTendre Education Fund Scholarship (NAEHCY/LeTendre). The recipients are undergraduates who have demonstrated an incredible commitment to education during their experience of homelessness.

These young people – typically in college by the time I’ve met them – are among the most courageous students I have ever met. Their stories are heartbreaking, yet hopeful at the same time. This year, they shared their experiences of surviving domestic violence, helping their parents and younger siblings gain access to food and shelter, dealing with constant stress and worry, working through high school, and getting by without much sleep. For many of them, these experiences began early in their lives and came full force during middle school. 

And yet, these students fought, and still fight, to take full advantage of every opportunity that crosses their paths – be it community service, school athletics, extracurricular activities, and Honor Society. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a more focused, and more dedicated group of people, and I am humbled that they continue to reach for a brighter future in the face of so many obstacles.

Yet, the sobering truth is this – homelessness is no obstacle that any child should have to face. While I’m awed by the strength and persistence of the human spirit – especially in our young people – I am a firm believer that the true measure of a society’s greatness is in its treatment of our most vulnerable people.  The stories of the 13 NAEHCY/LeTendre undergraduates are inspiring, and yet, even they continue to struggle for the basic necessities of life – including shelter and food – and they are the exception among homeless youth, not the norm.  There are far too many homeless youth who are left behind and cannot find the strength or resources to face another day without the basic necessities which leaves them with little, if any, hope.

We must do better.

The Department provides about $60 million per year to support the education of homeless youth, from kindergarten through grade 12.  These funds are vital to supporting State and local efforts to keep these highly mobile youth in their school of origin — minimizing the disruption that sudden or chronic homelessness may cause to their academic careers and community supports.  However, these dollars are thinly stretched and, over the past few years, school districts have reported more and more students in need of stable housing and basic necessities.

During the 2011 – 2012 school year, school districts reported 1,166,436 homeless youth – a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Seventy-five percent of these youth are “doubled-up” – that is, they are residing temporarily with other people, with or without their parents.  The remaining 25 percent stay in shelters, motels, or are completely unsheltered.  Too many of them are left wandering.

To give homeless youth the best possible chance to succeed, it is critical that we provide them with high-quality education services, wherever they go, and maintain strong partnerships between local education agencies and housing authorities.   However, after meeting with the NAEHCY/LeTendre recipients, I strongly believe that we must to do more to prevent youth homelessness in the first place and, for those students who become homeless, rapid rehousing must become our first priority.  What we offer to our children tells them what it is that we value.  By prioritizing the needs of homeless youth, we tell them that we believe in them and are willing to be advocates on this challenging pathway called life.

Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Texas Turnaround Becomes a Model for Success


Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.

Secretary Duncan has said that we cannot rest until all schools are schools we would be proud to send our own children.  Unfortunately, for too many schools across our country, this imperative is not yet a reality.

However, in schools like Lee High School in Houston, TX, things are beginning to change dramatically.  As you will see in this video about the improvement story at Lee, too many parents were “scared” to send their children to school.  Too many students said things like, “I never thought I would actually go to college.”

Now, as one of over 1400 schools implementing a school turnaround model as part of ED’s revamped School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, Lee has used almost $6 million over the past three years to extend learning time for students, build a supportive college-going culture, and continuously improve instruction with a focus on enhanced achievement for all students.

In Houston’s unique Apollo 20 school turnaround model, schools also provide high-intensity, targeted support in key subjects from highly-trained and committed tutors.  The same is true of 19 other previously low-performing schools across the city that have partnered with Professor Roland Fryer and a team of researchers from Harvard University to implement and rigorously evaluate a series of specific turnaround interventions.

As I walked through the halls of Lee High with the Secretary during a visit this past February, it was hard to believe that only three years ago, students and parents had voiced serious concerns about the school’s safety and low expectations.  In the same classrooms where fights had once been regular occurrences, teachers and staff were collaborating to help students improve academically, and students were committed to reaching their dreams of college and beyond.

The results at Lee are beginning to speak for themselves: daily attendance has reached the school’s goal of 95% on average and the dropout rate has fallen by more than half (from 14% to 6%).

What is promising is that Lee is not alone. Across the country, many SIG recipients are beginning to see encouraging progress and we are beginning to notice some common threads among schools that are turning around:

  1. A strong, dynamic principal with a clearly articulated vision for a school that is designed for success;
  2. A talented staff who shares the vision and has a commitment to collaborate on the critical and complex work associated with improving instruction for all students;
  3. Ongoing use of reliable data to make informed decisions about instructional improvement and student support;
  4. Community and family engagement strategies that treat these important stakeholders as accelerators of achievement rather than as barriers.

In order to sustain these positive changes, schools and districts are partnering with local community organizations, non-profits, and businesses to continue the momentum and critical resources necessary for sustained improvement.  In Houston, for example, local philanthropic leaders have provided $17 million to support the Apollo 20 school turnaround efforts.

Because of the incredibly inspiring work of leaders, teachers, parents, and students at schools like Lee High, more parents like Jessica Broadnax can say, “A child just definitely cannot fail in this place, they just can’t!”  What we offer to our children tells them what it is we value.  When we provide support for students and we offer them hope for a brighter future, we tell them that we value them and the opportunities that lie ahead.

Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Asst Secretary Delisle and Youth Lend Their Voices to Combatting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Last week I met José, who visited the U.S. Department of Education for a roundtable discussion on school discipline policies. He described experiences at his Chicago high school that left him with the uneasy feeling that he had to keep his “guard up” while trying to learn. José came to Washington for a congressional hearing on discipline, where I testified, and we invited him and other students from the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) project to come back to ED to talk more.

In our ongoing “Student Voices” series at the Department, students engage with senior staff members to help develop recommendations on current and future education programs and policies.

Delisle at Senate Hearing

At a Senate hearing on Dec. 12, Assistant Secretary Deb Delisle testified about the importance of keeping students in school, and out of the judicial system and prison.

At last week’s session, the Chicago youth offered their ideas for improving school discipline practices and ending the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a widespread pattern of pushing students – particularly those who are disadvantaged – out of school and into the juvenile justice or prison systems.

While all educators strive to demonstrate positive, caring discipline practices in their classrooms, and a large number of schools and districts implement effective strategies for managing student behavior, far too many schools overly rely on discipline policies that remove students from the learning environment. Across the country, during the 2009-2010 academic year, upwards of three million students were suspended, nearly 110,000 were expelled, and more than 240,000 were referred to law enforcement.

I was heartened by the words of Tiara, a youth participant at the roundtable, when she described why she feels so strongly about stopping this trend. She said, “There is a racial issue here, too, when Black and Latino students are being punished more severely than their White peers and being incarcerated at higher rates.”

Recent data support Tiara’s observation. African-American students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than White students. Disparities in discipline rates are also apparent for students with disabilities, who are more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as their non-disabled peers. These disparities, which also exist between male and female students, raise concerns that some schools are not providing all youth with equal access to education, which potentially violates civil rights laws.

We also know that when students are removed from school as a disciplinary measure, the likelihood that they will drop out or become involved in the juvenile justice system dramatically increases. A 2011 longitudinal study of nearly one million students in Texas by the Council of State Governments revealed that about 15 percent were suspended or expelled 11 times or more and nearly half of those students also became involved in the juvenile justice system. During the roundtable, Brian, a graduate of Chicago’s Kelvyn Park High School, noted that teachers and principals can help to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline by learning how to implement discipline policies that respond to students’ needs and the root causes of their misbehavior.

I echoed Brian’s sentiment prior to my discussion with him and his peers during my testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on December 12. I appreciate that Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who represents the students from VOYCE, convened a hearing on school discipline, a topic that comes up often when Secretary Duncan and my colleagues at ED talk with students. I talked with the subcommittee about the importance of providing teachers and school leaders with appropriate alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. That work begins when we focus on helping educators to build the competencies and skills they need to maintain safe, engaging classrooms.

We also must increase capacity at the local level for developing positive school climates and supporting students through promising, evidence-based discipline practices. Currently, the Department is reviewing behavioral frameworks – including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports – to determine if such approaches might help ED better focus its technical assistance to schools. Encouraging states and districts to review their discipline policies also is critical to ensuring that every school has in place an equitable code of conduct that does not more frequently or more harshly impact particular student groups.

Partnerships across the education, health, child welfare, and justice sectors are vital to keep all students safe, in school, and learning. To find out more about the Department’s work in this area and how the agency is collaborating with other organizations and federal stakeholders, read my full Senate testimony here.

Deb Delisle is the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education.