It’s hard to focus on your studies or perform well on tests when you don’t know where you’re sleeping tonight. Provide residential stability, though, and you promote enrollment stability which, in turn, should promote academic performance – and success.
That’s the theory the Tacoma Housing Authority is testing at McCarver Elementary in the Hilltop neighborhood, one of the city’s poorest. McCarver’s had a history of high student turnover. 179 percent, in fact, in 2006 or the equivalent, explains The Urban Institute, of having 56 different kids sitting in a classroom with 20 desks in a single school year.
“Hypermobile students” it notes, “experience difficulties with classroom participation and academics, sometimes leading to repeating grades or failing to complete school.” It’s tough on teachers, too. “Seeing their students come and go in a matter of weeks, not years, robs them of the chance to get to know the kids, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses over time, and adjust their lesson plans to help them improve in their areas of need.” Neither “students nor teachers can do their best.”
Which is why three years ago the Authority, launched a partnership with Tacoma Schools to see whether housing could help reduce turnover and improve performance. The idea was simple. Fifty income-eligible McCarver families who were homeless or near-homeless would receive HUD-funded rental vouchers for a period of five years, contributing $25 per month towards rent the first year, 20 percent of the rent the next and additional 20 percent in each of the last three years. That would insure their kids would have a place to lay their head every night for five years and incentivize the parents to become economically self-sufficient.
There were conditions. Parents had to keep their kids enrolled at McCarver. They had to make sure their kids got to school on time and that they would help them with their homework and read to them. And they had to join the P.T.A., not miss any parent-teacher consultations and, finally, take classes themselves.
“Children who grow up in deep poverty bring challenges to the schoolhouse door that the best-trained teacher in the fanciest classroom cannot address on their own,” Authority executive director Michael Mirra explains. “We start[ed] this experiment with a surmise that a housing authority is situated to be influential.”
Initial results from the project’s first two years reported in January, 2014 by Geo Education & Research suggest it can be. Among students participating in the McCarver Education Program turnover did rise from 3.4 percent in the first to 13.5 percent in the second, but that was still less than a fifth of the school-wide rate of 75.2 percent. Families receiving TANF – Temporary Aid to Needy Families – fell by more than half and the average monthly income for all participating families almost doubled while families with jobs saw monthly income rise 50 percent…
And, most importantly, GEO Education and Research reported that students participating in the program “showed significant gains in reading” and “consistently out-performed homeless students across the district.” Looks like the McCarver project is onto something.
So much so, in fact, that its model is now college bound. As kids get older they may get wiser, but performing academically doesn’t get any easier if they have no place to call home. Just ask Carolyn Jones who’s studying to be a paralegal at Tacoma Community College (TCC), the largest institution of higher education in South Puget Sound. Victims of domestic violence she and her three daughters lived for 10 months in a shelter. “I go to sit down” to study and “to read a book,” she told KING-TV last year, “and all I see is homeless. There are words on the paper but I see homeless.”
“Pride went out the window months ago,” she added. “I need help.”
It’s on the way. This fall the Authority started providing $150,000 a year for three years to TCC for housing assistance to up to 25 homeless or near-homeless students, many the first in their families to attend college. They must be income-eligible, U.S. citizens, pass a background check and have at least a 12-credit course “This innovative approach,” said TCC Vice President for Student Services Mary Chikwinya, “will assist members of our community in reaching their academic goals and help families to become self-sufficient.”
Will the two Authority projects become models for others to follow? Who knows? But early results are promising. So too is the story of Chrystal Olson, a McCarver parent. When her older daughter entered kindergarten at McCarver, she told The Urban Institute, “she couldn’t read or write her own name.” Now a second-grader she’s “a strong reader and a top-of-the-charts math student.”
Ditto for her Mom. She’s taken classes to address issues she’s had with addiction and to learn how to get her financial house in order. And, earlier this year, graduated from high school, the first in her immediate family to ever do so. “It’s really a blessing for me and my children to be in this program.” A blessing, hopefully, others like her may one day enjoy.