Although four housing authorities were chosen to speak on the panel, in collaboration with the Oakland Housing Authority, whose deputy director Janet Rice moderated the panel, any number of other members could have shared the stage. For years, we have heard how housing is a platform for life and how housing authorities are getting involved in ensuring that their residents are able to use their housing as a springboard for educational success. The panel members represented some of the many approaches being taken, in terms both of type and scope of efforts. They made one thing clear—the data and research are driving the development of these initiatives. Housing authority involvement in educational concerns is truly an evidence-based practice.
Boston Housing Authority
Trinh Nguyen, Chief of Staff at the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), began the panel with BHA’s story. As at most housing authorities, BHA had run sporadic, ad-hoc educational programs throughout its history, usually for about three to five years, completely dependent on the availability of short-term funding. BHA set out on a planning process to find a more sustainable way to support their youth for the long term, with measurable outcomes. Driving that decision were several facts: 40 percent of BHA residents are under 24 years of age; BHA residents represent nearly 10 percent of Boston Public School (BPS) students; and generational poverty was growing in their resident population. BHA made a decision “to own responsibility” for their young people’s educational performance, understanding that they do not have the in-house expertise to develop and implement educational programs. They chose a partnership model to identify and use expertise in the community. Their Pathways to Success strategy proposed strategic interventions with particular attention to periods of transition that research shows often pose challenges to low-income families. In early childhood, the model includes childcare resources and counseling around parenting skills. It calls for resources for parents to choose the right schools for their children and then for targeted interventions at specific risk points, such as transitions between schools and out-of-school time, to prevent outcomes such as dropping out. At the same time, it will assist those who need work training and out-of-school educational support.
BHA has begun to engage in a large-scale data collection effort, matching data with BPS to find their resident students for future targeting of place-based strategies. They will continue to work on data collection and building data capacity as they develop the specific applications of their approach. While they have a number of key indicators that they will follow, progress will be primarily charted based on grades, standardized tests, and absenteeism.
Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority
While BHA targets specific points all along the continuum from early education to high school and beyond, Tony O’Leary, Executive Director of Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority (AMHA) presented AMHA’s more age-focused approach. Like BHA, AMHA had run many sporadic and unfocused education programs, without measurable outcomes. The housing authority decided that if they were going to invest time, energy, and resources on education, they would get the best return on their investment by focusing on their 3,000 residents under age five through early childhood education interventions. AMHA based this decision, as well as the rest of the strategy for their early childhood initiative, on the conclusions of empirical education research. They have a four-pronged approach: monthly family outreach events; home visitation, both scheduled and random; use of the Parents as Teachers curriculum to engage parents in preparing their children for school; and assessment for maternal depression, with referrals for treatment.
The University of Akron is evaluating the results of the program and AMHA hopes to assess and track participants throughout their educational careers, though the immediate outcomes will be measured by kindergarten readiness exam scores. This year, AMHA has served almost 700 families, using a variety of incentives to encourage participation, connecting with families upon move-in, and taking time to build trusting relationships. In the program’s first year, the housing authority’s regular resident services staff became overwhelmed by the needs of families identified during home visitation, but this only underscores the need for these types of services. Well over half of the funding for AMHA’s initiative has come primarily from private foundations. They have successfully marketed the program to a number of small foundations, who are each able to provide grants of $5,000 to 10,000 per year to provide support and an array of services to eight to twelve families a year.
St. Paul Public Housing Agency
Michael Winston, Director of Resident Services at the St. Paul Public Housing Agency (SPPHA), emphasized the importance of education-focused support by sharing a moving personal account of how he was stigmatized at school for growing up in public housing and his experience mentoring students. In St. Paul, the agency has sought to do as much as it can to help as many of its residents as possible, for as long as it can. They are currently involved in fifteen different education-related partnerships. SPPHA has an early childhood family learning center where they help parents gain parenting skills and provide early education with early parental engagement. Winston has seen that children in public housing are looking for opportunities and the housing authority is in the position to provide such opportunities.
SPPHA is currently engaged in a pilot partnership, through which a city-wide data collection system is being developed for after-school programs of all types. This is an effort initiated through the mayor's office, in cooperation with St. Paul Public Schools, to document participation in after-school programming in schools and community based programs. The goal is to resolve data privacy issues to a level where school progress can be determined, allowing for better targeting of needs, and allowing all programs to become part of the solution to closing the achievement gap in St. Paul.
Tacoma Housing Authority
Michael Mirra, Executive Director of the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA), described the two fundamental goals driving their education initiative: to improve the educational outcomes of THA residents and to improve the outcomes of Tacoma schools. The initiative is an experiment in the possible role that a housing authority can play in education outcomes. As a “social justice agency with a technical mission,” housing authorities want their residents to succeed as parents, students, and wage earners. Research shows that education outcomes can serve as proxies for other important indicators of social well-being. As real-estate developers, housing authorities’ financial success, particularly in mixed-income communities, depends on school success. Finally, where school districts need help, fellow public agencies hold some degree of responsibility to assist. Housing authorities can have influence because other than school districts and public assistance agencies, they engage with more low-income children than anyone else. Further, those children spend most of their time in homes subsidized by the housing authority. The housing authority is deeply present in their lives and can condition some of their assistance and housing authority properties to provide physical staging grounds for many types of assistance.
Mirra offered three examples of the ways that THA engages in the local educational system. The “smallest” effort is based on a program called Reach out and Read. The housing authority gives its residents books at their routine encounters. All housing authority public spaces have bookcases with free books that residents can read and take. The second example is incorporating in THA’s intake and recertification process the registration for the state’s College Bound Scholarship program. Under this program, students who sign up by 8th grade are assured scholarship assistance for secondary education. Last year, 100 percent of eligible THA resident students signed up for the program providing a tremendous financial resource for these low-income students and an incentive to continue their education, simply by adding the registration paperwork to their own housing authority procedures. In addition to the actual scholarship assistance, this provides an opportunity to signal the family that they should start thinking about college.
Mirra’s final example is a much more intensive engagement with McCarver Elementary School, in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. At McCarver, 99.5 percent of students are very poor. Student turnover over the last three years has ranged from 100 to 179 percent, reflecting the housing instability of poverty. The school has more homeless students than any other in the city. Through THA’s initiative, families of children in kindergarten through second grade will receive housing and social services assistance for a maximum of five years or until they leave the school. The rental assistance will begin at 100 percent of rent and taper down. (THA can do this through its Moving-to-Work authority.) In order to receive this assistance, families are expected to keep their children in McCarver, reflecting the housing authority’s concern not only for the students but for the school. Parents must both commit to active involvement in their children’s education (as defined by the school) and develop an individual plan for their own education and employment, with matched Individual Development Accounts available.
Recognizing that their housing dollars are of significant value to the housing authority, THA has also leveraged those dollars for commitments to school reform on teacher quality and curriculum. The school culture will be transformed as it adopts an International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum, hoping to help its students feed into the already established IB middle and high school in the area. The McCarver initiative only began in late October, but THA saw early returns during the planning process in the form of increased energy and engagement from both school staff and families who may not even directly benefit from the housing assistance, who were grateful that attention was being paid to their community. Efforts like these fortify the housing authority’s place in the landscape of community resources.
Following the panel presentations, a number of other members reported on their own education-related initiatives. Given the scope of our members’ engagement and interest in this type of work, CLPHA will be focusing on these initiatives. CLPHA will soon convene a group to discuss their experiences with these types of efforts and identify best practices for housing authorities that seek to play a role in improving their residents’ educational outcomes. Any member who would like to join this group or otherwise share about their own initiatives should contact CLPHA Research & Policy Analyst Leah Staub.