It’s Not Easy Being Seen

Hello dear blogosphere, miss me? Probably not, since you’re an anthropomorphization of my overactive imagination, but that’s OK. Still, it’s always fun to have someone to talk to, oh Figment! Today, my mind is ruminating programs, partnerships and policy (yes, I know it’s three “P’s” in a row and a truly scatological mnemonic), three interconnected components that relate the idea of conceptual capital.

See three P! Oh!

A scatologically bad mnemonic for an important concept.

I’m mostly thinking about these things because later this week we’ll be hosting the 2nd annual #STHAchieve Conference at the NYC Department of Education – a professional development series for DOE employees and nonprofit partners focused on supporting students and families affected by homelessness. I’ll explain more about this in a moment, but for the time being suffice it to say that it’s a little unusual to be hosting a 1,200 person conference for city agency employees. Of course, the subject of homelessness, its related traumas, and their impacts on youth development and educational attainment are both intuitively obvious (not good at all), and also highly complex. On its face, it’s clearly important to bring together the educational professionals and support staff who interact with students affected by homelessness so that we can identify strategies, resources and relationships to become better allies and advocates for these students.

But it’s also about lifting up the reality of homelessness in an environment where social emotional learning and whole child supports are still relatively new concepts, and where homelessness itself (and it’s related traumas and stigmas) can remain hidden.

Homelessness in NYC DOE Schools

You see, about 10% of NYC students are affected by homelessness each year (more than 111,000 in the 2019-2020 school year). This is a staggering figure in an of itself. Of the 1,700 NYC public schools, fewer than ten schools reported having no students affected by homelessness in attendance. Indeed, there are hundreds of schools where the population of these students can exceed 25% of the entire school community.

10% of NYC students are affected by homelessness each year (more than 111,000 in the 2019-2020 school year).

Of this 10%, nearly two thirds of these students are living in “doubled up” conditions due to economic hardship, while the remaining third are living within the NYC shelter system (mostly in shelters supported by the NYC Department of Homeless Services). In public education speak, these students are referred to as “Students in Temporary Housing,” or STH for short (hence the #STHAchieve hashtag for our conference). These students are supported by the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which at its heart commits education departments across the country to ensure these students “receive educational services comparable to those provided to other [permanently housed] students, according to each student’s need.”

This, as you might imagine, is not easy to do.

The 25 member team that I lead in the NYC DOE supports more than 300 school- and shelter-based DOE personnel, including social workers, family liaisons and student support staff, to whom we provide regular professional development, individual guidance, problem-solving support and role-based supervision. That’s a lot of people. But when you’re talking about the needs of more than 111,000 students, those 300 staff can rightly feel that they can’t turn the curve on issues like reducing chronic absence for these students on their own.

The #STHAchieve Conference

So, once a year we hold a big conference that can bring together over a thousand other DOE employees who also work directly with these students, including guidance counselors, parent coordinators, school-based mental health providers, teachers and principals. We also invite nonprofit providers, other city agency leaders, and similar partners with expertise and resources to share.


A professional development series for DOE employees and nonprofit partners focused on supporting students and families affected by homelessness

We’re seeking to do three things:

  • Expand knowledge and awareness
  • Build relationship and extend working partnerships
  • Make time for self-care

Each of these items is worth a blog post of their own (and perhaps they will receive one). But I want to take us back to the three P’s I mentioned at the beginning of this already overly long post.

Strategy Tip: Programs, Partnerships and Policy

Programs, partnerships and policy are three elements we’re using side by side to expand the visibility and influence of this work. That’s important to do in an institution as complex as the NYC DOE. With 135,000 staff, a $25 billion annual budget, and the aforementioned 1,700 schools, even an issue as critical as student homelessness can sometimes fail to cut through the noise. In our very large, surprisingly rich, highly fragmented social services ecosystem, this is a common problem: there are too many problems. So these three strategies can be applied effectively in other issue areas to achieve similar results:

ProgramsWe learn by doing. Programs are the on-the-ground implementations where interventions can be see and felt, and where results can be measured (at least, one hopes they can). Programs should be the highest expression of our knowledge, empathy, and intention, and should result in material improvements for program participants. They should also be practiced in such a way that the people tasked with leading them also benefit from a sense of purpose and accomplishment, mostly as the result of having proper training, support and resources to do the work.
PartnershipsPartnerships help us accomplish two important things: (1) They leverage the expertise and capacity of other stakeholders who share a similar interest in achieving results for the same population. Together we are more than the sum of our parts, and strong partners help us see beyond ourselves to a larger sense of what’s possible in the work. (2) Partnerships with other leaders make our own leadership and theirs more visible, and with greater visibility comes more opportunity to exert shared influence, and build momentum for systemic change.
PolicyBroad exposure to doing the work and engaging in thinking about the work supports pattern recognition. By synthesizing the various inputs we can extrapolate broader, more deeply informed perspectives on what needs are the highest priority, and how resources can be most effectively directed to meet these needs. Good policy is the signal in the noise, leading us full circle back to programs in ways that deepen future impacts.

It’s Not Easy Being Seen

Look, all I’m trying to say is that there’s strategy here, and in this case it’s a strategy about improving equity for a highly vulnerable population that really can benefit from the additional attention and intention. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback I got from program participants at least year’s conference (especially among those 300 some school- and shelter-based STH professionals) was that they felt seen.

There are so many challenges schools are contending with, especially during this period of COVID restricted in-person learning (when vulnerabilities are unfortunately and dramatically emphasized). Our 300+ STH personnel are often the only person in the school actually tasked with the job of identifying every student affected by homelessness, of knowing that student’s story, of tracking that student’s progress alongside an informed understanding of the traumas they are navigating. It’s incredibly hard work, and involves tremendous exposure to secondary trauma.

It is a welcoming, and a thank you, and an encouragement to continue.

The #STHAchieve conference is a way of validating all the complexities of this work, of lifting these up and making them visible, and of helping the work resonate far beyond the immediate circle of our roles. In a way, the conference itself is a sign of respect. It is a welcoming, and a thank you, and an encouragement to continue. By connecting programs, partnerships and policy through this medium (and others as well), we help the work be better seen, which helps our individual team members feel more rightly recognized, and our students and families more deeply held.

Ok, I’m soooooo excited for our week of learning! I’ll catch you on the flip side.

Until then, stay strong and stay dapper.