For a Homeless Child, a Long Ride to 4th Grade
I am without comment.
By Emily Canal
Every night, N-Dia Layne would set the alarm on her mother's cellphone to 4:45 a.m. If the two of them were not on the subway platform at 103rd Street and Broadway by 6:20 a.m., there was no way N-Dia would be on time for school.
Even so, N-Dia, was often late. By the end of October, the fourth grader was just one tardiness away from the six allowed a student for the entire term. Her mother, Whitnee Layne, was frantic with worry.
"It's the second month of school and she is going to be suspended; it's going to happen," said Ms. Layne, 34. "I have to get out of here. I have to get out of Manhattan."
Ms. Layne and N-Dia, 9, live at the Regent Family Residence for the Homeless, a shelter on West 104th Street and Broadway. They were transferred last summer from their original family shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn, two blocks from N-Dia's school.
It would have been easier for Ms. Layne if she had transferred N-Dia to a Manhattan school, but she was seeking continuity and stability for her daughter, and feared that a change of schools would set her back. So they took two trains -- and traveled an hour and 15 minutes each way -- so N-Dia could remain at Brooklyn Ascend Charter School.
Only 35 percent of the families who are placed in temporary housing in New York City are placed in the school district where their youngest child is enrolled, Seth Diamond, the commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, said last month at a City Council hearing on the education of homeless children.
Depending on which agency is doing the counting, council members were told, there are either 53,503 students (the city Education Department's count, of children 3 to 21 years old) or an average of 6,902 children a month (the Homeless Services Department's count, of 6- to 17-year-olds with no other housing options) who are homeless in New York City.
In either case, the vast majority of parents must decide, as Ms. Layne did, whether to transfer their children to a closer school or to commute.
Ms. Layne said that they were moved out of the Brownsville shelter because it was overcrowded, and that she was told N-Dia did not need to be close to her school since it was summer and she was on vacation. But when the school year began, mother and daughter struggled to travel back and forth between boroughs, as do many other families in temporary housing.
"I get upset when I can't go to school and I get behind," said N-Dia, who aspires to be a firefighter. "I go to school to learn, and if I am not there they learn without me, and that hurts my feelings because I don't know what to do the next day and I am embarrassed."
Ms. Layne, who moved to New York from Rochester in 2006 and lost her job as an administrative assistant in 2009, said she wanted to keep N-Dia at the Brooklyn charter school. "With all the transitions she has been through in her little nine years, I want to keep some type of stability in her life," she said.
Last year, N-Dia's father was shot and killed while sitting in his car. No arrests have been made, Ms. Layne said. The year before that, N-Dia's godmother died, and 12 months earlier she lost her grandmother.
"I feel like her schooling is the one thing I can control," Ms. Layne said. "I can't control the people that die, and I can't control where we live right now."
Education Department data from 2004 and 2005 show that homeless students who transferred to new schools were absent at roughly twice the rate of homeless students who remained in the same school, said Jared Stein, assistant director of the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students, a state-financed organization.
"It forces students to have to start over when they are already in a great state of stress to begin with," Mr. Stein said.
Ms. Layne said their lives had already been a roller-coaster ride. "So me taking the time to travel all the way to Brooklyn to keep her in this school is worth it," she said.
Ms. Layne pleaded with officials to be able to return to a shelter in Brooklyn, but to no avail.
At last month's City Council hearing, officials said they were not satisfied with the city's record of placing families close to their child's school.
"We want to do better than 35 percent, it's too low, and I think if we had a choice we would always place a child near where the youngest child attends," Mr. Diamond said. "There are constraints on where we can do that: sometimes it's a situation the parent has; sometimes it's a situation we have in terms of available capacity."
Ms. Layne had also asked if N-Dia could be bused to school. After several months, the request recently was formally denied.
The mother and daughter receive weekly Metrocards through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001, the primary federal legislation focused on the education of homeless children.
On a recent school day, N-Dia's bright pink and green-patterned backpack stood out in the dim, yellow light of the subway station at West 103rd Street. She was dressed in a blue and white uniform and wore her hair in tight, zigzagging braids.
N-Dia and her mother boarded the No. 1 train, then transferred to the No. 3 at 96th Street. On some mornings they have to make a mad dash to get into the car before the doors close; on other days the minutes drag on, with no train in sight.
After 96th Street, N-Dia napped on her mother's shoulder, while Ms. Layne listened to music. N-Dia often does her homework on the ride home.
A few stops before Sutter Avenue, where N-Dia's school is, Ms. Layne woke her. Then she hurried her daughter to school before the first bell.
"It's unfair, and it makes me feel upset," N-Dia said of her long ride. "I feel frustrated that I have to go on the train for two and a half hours to be educated."
On the days that she had no appointments in Manhattan, Ms. Layne, who owns and runs CookiBOX, a Web site devoted to unsigned musicians and rappers, stayed in Brooklyn, because it was easier than traveling back and forth, she said. And when she was busy, she hired someone to pick N-Dia up.
"I don't want her to grow up and have to go through what I went through," said Ms. Layne, who transferred from schools many times. "I want her to be that firefighter, I want her to be better."
But on many mornings a sick passenger or a construction delay held the subway up, and N-Dia's overall attendance was falling. Social workers and staff members from Brooklyn Ascend tried to help, but N-Dia was absent 12 times in the first two months. And her math and English grades slipped, to 50s and 30s from 80s and 70s.
City Councilman Lewis Fidler said last month's hearing was a good opportunity to see the level of cooperation between the Department of Education and the Department of Homeless Services in providing services to homeless children.
"What motivated the hearing is what kind of job the D.O.E. and D.H.S. were doing in trying to keep kids in the same school they were in, whenever possible," said Mr. Fidler. "While they are doing better than last year, they are still not really doing a superlative job of accomplishing that."
In N-Dia's case, the efforts to keep her at her charter school, which received a C on its last city progress report, failed. On Nov. 4, after Ms. Layne met with counselors from Brooklyn Ascend, it was mutually agreed that N-Dia should attend school closer to the shelter.
"I cried during the meeting," Ms. Layne said. "I didn't want to take the convenient way out. I really wanted to keep her in that school where she had some type of stability."
The following Monday N-Dia dressed as she normally would for school, in a blue pleated skirt and a white shirt. She didn't have the required yellow top for her first day at P.S. 145, the Bloomingdale School, at 150 West 105th Street, but she did clip yellow barrettes in her hair.
New York Times