K-12, Housing Partner to Aid Homeless Students
His four stepchildren didn't put it into words, but Bobby Gantt saw the insecurity that gripped them as they spent much of their young lives moving between temporary living situations.
First, they spent several years in California shelters with their mother, then they crashed with family in Washington state after she married Mr. Gantt. Next, they squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment with their parents and a new baby the couple had together.
"We were always just on the go," said Mr. Gantt, who has had one more child with his wife, Tameka, in the time since. "These kids were used to waking up like, 'What's next?'"
But, over the last few years, the family has been stabilized by an unusual partnership between their children's school and the Tacoma, Wash., housing authority. Known as the McCarver Elementary School Special Housing Program, the pilot program, started in 2011, is one of a small but growing number of "place based" solutions that aim to tackle the problem of family mobility—a major risk factor for low student achievement—head-on. They do so both by slowing families from relocating and by easing the effects of such changes through supportive services.
The programs often involve collaboration between public and private entities that don't typically work together, such as schools, health-care providers, and social service groups.
In the Tacoma pilot, 50 families with children who attend the 28,000-student district's McCarver Elementary School agreed to keep their children enrolled in the high-poverty school for as long as they participate in the program, to become more involved in their children's education through parent-teacher conferences and volunteering at the school, and to work with caseworkers on a plan to improve the education and employment of adults in the household.
In exchange, the families receive vouchers to help cover the cost of housing. In the first year of participation, families covered $25 of their rental costs per month, and the housing authority covered the rest. The families' financial obligations grow gradually until they are self-sufficient: The program covers 80 percent of rent in the second year, 60 percent in the third year, 40 percent in the fourth year, and 20 percent in the fifth year.
For the Gantt family, that participation has meant trading instability for a four-bedroom townhouse where they have lived for two years.
Caseworkers based in the school helped Mr. Gantt, 33, previously a short-order cook who served prison time for drug-related charges before meeting his wife, find scholarships and grants to train for his commercial driver's license. He recently finished the training and is now weighing job possibilities that pay $20 to $40 an hour. And Mrs. Gantt, 32, who stays home with the couple's youngest children, is working on her bachelor's degree online.
Their youngest child, Bella, is 1, and their oldest, Alissa, is 13. They currently have two children at McCarver, but their other children have also benefited from involvement in the program, Mr. Gantt said.
The housing program at McCarver Elementary fits into the trend of place-based approaches for helping disadvantaged students, which also includes Promise Neighborhoods, financed through competitive federal grants.
Such efforts differ from past interventions for poor students, which often focused on relocating individual families to higher-income areas, said Justin Milner, a senior research associate with the Washington-based Urban Institute.
But past experiments with moving poor families to wealthier neighborhoods showed mixed academic results. And, as deep poverty becomes more concentrated in both urban and suburban areas, there's a growing interest in broader approaches that address the needs of entire schools, Mr. Milner said.
The stress that high mobility creates for one family is multiplied and intensified in high-poverty schools, where entire classrooms can turn over during the course of an academic year as parents move and students shift in and out of schools. Highly mobile students struggle to learn concepts as they shift from schools with different instructional methods and teaching timelines, and problems related to their poverty, including hunger and family turmoil, can make it hard for them to be engaged in the classroom.
Even children who don't move frequently often struggle academically when most other students in their school do, researchers have found.
Federal housing-assistance programs, designed to stabilize families, have a limited reach. Those programs, including Section 8 housing vouchers, typically target rental aid to those earning less than 50 percent of the area's median income. An estimated 19.3 million families were eligible for the assistance in 2011, but only 4.6 million received it, according to a December 2013 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.
U.S. public schools reported a record high enrollment of 1.3 million homeless students in the 2012-13 school year, a nearly 8 percent increase from the previous year.
Located in the hilltop area above downtown Tacoma, McCarver Elementary School enrolls large numbers of students who live in homeless and domestic-violence shelters downtown, said Scott Rich, who was the principal of the school when the housing pilot was created.
About a third of McCarver's 400 students were then classified, Mr. Rich said. For most of the past decade, the school's mobility rate exceeded 100 percent. It peaked at 179 percent in 2005-06, which means the entire school population turned over nearly twice that year.
"It was a revolving-door situation," said Mr. Rich, who is now a principal at a middle school.
The Tacoma Housing Authority worked with the school to design the pilot and identify participant families. The agency has a federal Moving to Work designation, which gives it the flexibility to design innovative housing supports and to attach strings, such as school requirements, to its rental vouchers.
To boost its appeal to families, McCarver converted to an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program site. That model emphasizes learning a second language, curiosity, and critical thinking.
The housing program, school-based case managers, and annual third-party analysis are supported by a variety of local organizations and through a grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The foundation also helps support Education Week's coverage of implementation of college- and career-ready standards.)
An evaluation from the program's second year shows that 45 of the 50 original families are still participating. (Some have left for better job opportunities elsewhere, and others didn't meet the requirements.)
McCarver's mobility rate was 75 percent in 2012-13 and in 2013-14. While that rate is still high, it's the lowest the school has seen in at least a decade, the report says. Median attendance rates among participants have risen to nearly meet the school's rate of 96 percent, well exceeding attendance rates for homeless students in the district, which are in the mid 80s.
Analysis of state standardized-test scores is difficult with such a small cohort of students, evaluators wrote. They noted that rates of proficient scores were not statistically different between program participants and the school as a whole. Program students demonstrated strong growth in reading on a separate test.
In 2013 surveys, 64 percent of McCarver's teachers agreed or strongly agreed that the program is helping to identify the nonacademic needs of students, but just 27 percent of those teachers said the program was helping to meet those needs.
The program's leaders have worked to find the right level of supports for families, one that addresses their most challenging needs but is also financially sustainable and scalable, said Michael Mirra, the executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority.
"Children who grow up in deep poverty or homelessness bring challenges to the schoolhouse door that the best-trained teacher in the fanciest classroom cannot address alone," he said.
Caseworkers have helped the Gantt family sign up for utilities assistance, find charities distributing free toys at Christmas, and identify financial aid for college. They also gave the family baskets of food at Thanksgiving and took them on a day trip to the Seattle Art Museum.
Caseworkers have helped connect other participant families to mental-health services, find furniture, and locate transportation. And the school offers students after-school programs and free summer day camps.
The program is more resource-intensive than many other interventions for low-income students, said Michael Power, formerly the manager of educational programs for the housing authority. He is now an assistant superintendent in another district.
"The appeal of the project is that it was a much more holistic approach to dealing with the challenges that kids had, that were much deeper and more complicated than any test score could ever show you," he said.
The program's leaders are awaiting the results of a third-year evaluation. Then they will work to answer a series of questions about the McCarver Special Housing Program. Should it be extended for additional years with additional families or replicated at other schools? Should some elements be changed to make it more effective?
"If we turn out to be even half right with our plausible expectations about this partnership that we're building, it should be very interesting to other housing authorities and school districts, and certainly to the ones that face similar challenges," Mr. Mirra said.
Energy and Hope
Even as Tacoma leaders await the results of the pilot, it has already drawn interest from around the country.
Washington state lawmakers also introduced bills in the 2013-14 legislative session to give preference to housing-projects that involve collaboration with districts. Those bills did not make it out of committee.
And national groups like the Washington-based Council of Large Public Housing Authorities have explored ways that housing programs can partner with schools.
Even small collaborations can make a big difference, said Mr. Milner of the Urban Institute.
After one school district saw high student turnover in April, when families' housing vouchers expired, the local housing authority moved voucher renewals to the summertime so they wouldn't interrupt schooling, he said.
In Tacoma, the housing authority increased participation in a public scholarship program to 100 percent among its patrons by including sign-up forms in its housing-enrollment packets. Previously, many students missed out on the scholarship, which covers most public in-state college tuition and requires sign up by the end of 8th grade, when parents failed to shuffle one more set of papers, Mr. Mirra said.
Mr. Gantt said the Tacoma program has brought fresh energy and hope to his family. He and his wife feel like better parents now, Mr. Gantt said, because they have more time to help their children with their schoolwork.
"Kids, they feel things," Mr. Gantt said of the family's formerly mobile life. "We wanted to make sure these kids didn't carry our burden."
Vol. 34, Issue 14, Pages 1, 12-13Published in Print: December 10, 2014, as Housing Partnership Aids Homeless Students