On East Fourth Street, between Avenues C and D on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the elementary school P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente has long served an unusually large share of children living in temporary housing: about 40 percent of the school’s students.
With so many homeless students, P.S. 15 faces even more complex challenges than many other City schools with high poverty rates. Students come and go frequently as their families change housing, from school year to school year and also from month to month.
Irene Sanchez, who became principal at Roberto Clemente in 2010, says: “If we have 200 students, over 100 each year are admitted and discharged. All of that change is difficult, and it’s compounded because our children are under a lot of stress. That presents itself in many different ways. Some students shut down, some go into crisis, some act out.” Only a small number of P.S. 15’s students do not face some sort of major challenge outside of school.
P.S. 15 has pursued a variety of strategies to serve the needs of its students and their families and guardians. Those include on-site social workers; medical, dental, and mental health services; and helping parents receive social services. The school also received a grant for a washer and dryer so that parents can come in and do their laundry for free.
Those efforts have produced eye-opening results: the share of P.S. 15 students scoring at the proficient level soared from five percent to 63 percent between 2015 and 2018 on the New York State English Language Arts exam and from 12 percent to 52 percent on the State Math test.
“I have seen a dramatic shift in the students who have stayed with us for a while,” notes Shamwell. “Watching those students playing together in the park and seeing how they interact and communicate with each other is exceptional when you think back to how they used to behave. And it’s not just the students, but the whole families. Once you build really solid, productive, trusting relationships with families, then the sky’s the limit.”
– Community School Director Kathleen Shamwell, P.S. 15 in Manhattan
A central reason behind the school’s progress is the partnership it formed in 2014 as part of City’s Community Schools initiative with an organization called Pathways2Leadership, under the leadership of P.S. 15’s Community School Director, Kathleen Shamwell. The main services that Pathways2Leadership provides are a mentoring program during the school day and an afterschool enrichment program. Mentoring includes a full-time, on-site social worker and four social work interns who each manage a caseload of students. The afterschool program includes activities like dance, music, and theater as well as homework help.
Director Shamwell describes the challenges that her team focuses on: “The lack of consistency in the lives of most of our students plays a huge role in their ability to trust—not just adults but also their peers—and to feel safe. Because they don’t know if their experience here will be permanent, that affects their ability to develop strong relationships. And if they start in the middle of the year, they need help catching up on what they missed. So you see a lot of them feeling sort of lost in the shuffle and trying to figure out how to get to a place where they can feel confident and safe.”
When a child has a crisis, Shamwell and her team have designed a system to respond. Part of that process includes dedicated space inside the school where staff are available to help the student feel safe and navigate through the period of upset. “Over time, as we work with the children, we have been having fewer and fewer crises,” Shamwell says.
Especially for children who have attended P.S. 15 beyond a few months, Pathways2Leadership has produced tangible improvements. “I have seen a dramatic shift in the students who have stayed with us for a while,” notes Shamwell. “Watching those students playing together in the park and seeing how they interact and communicate with each other is exceptional when you think back to how they used to behave. And it’s not just the students, but the whole families. Once you build really solid, productive, trusting relationships with families, then the sky’s the limit.”