While the work will likely never be complete, these five communities have made great strides in mitigating poverty. Importantly, every site attributed successes to the partnerships they have forged. As this report has already illustrated, building these relationships is not always easy and takes time, but having common objectives with partners is critical to creating partnerships and achieving outcomes.
“Really building that relationship, building some trust, building some real common themes, was really crucial to having that relationship take off,” Seattle Housing Authority’s Andrew Lofton said. Mirra of the Tacoma Housing Authority had the same experience and also described an important part of building partnerships: to let each partner be the specialist in its respective area. For example, THA felt it was important to adopt performance measures used by the school district in deference to their expertise. “We didn’t have any interest in second-guessing that,” Mirra said. Partnerships, according to Lofton, also allow for a “cultivation of the ideas, and the cultivation of the ability for people to see the commonality of what folks were trying to do—to create a path to success, to allow people to be successful, to take head-on difficult issues, like the education or the opportunity gap that was being experienced by students of color versus the majority students. To have, you know, very frank and thoughtful conversations about what that was about, what was contributing to it, and what we as two institutions could do about it.”
Out of all of these partnerships, one unifying lesson is the importance of establishing joint goals. That can help a mission as well as strengthen a partnership’s impact. Seattle Housing Authority initially approached work with its public schools by stressing their commonalities in terms of overlapping populations—a good way to help a potential partner see the utility of working together. But the housing authority then realized it needed to define the common goals both entities wanted to achieve and figure out how each organization’s assets could support those goals. Looking back, King County Housing Authority agrees about defining joint goals but also stresses “starting small and being really, really clear about what your end goal is, and ensure that whatever the end goal is, you’re making logical steps to get there,” KCHA Director of Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Megan Hyla said. Overall, KCHA wants children to be successful in a number of long-term outcomes, which means the time necessary to fully measure success is at least 20 years. To help address this challenge, KCHA infuses its work with short-term outcomes to measure along the way. And KCHA Director of Research and Evaluation Sarah Oppenheimer encourages new partnerships to bring in research and evaluation as early as possible.
Having agreed-upon goals is especially important because organizations evolve over time. “A lot of places of connection change over the years,” said Matthew Gulbranson, the community partnerships director of the Puget Sound Educational Service District. “But I think the strength of that is that we recognize what we both bring to the table, the importance of that, and how we both have this regional impact, and this regional role.” What matters most is the mission. As Gulbranson put it, “It’s about leveraging your community voice and the impact, and how important it is to keep that front and center in the work.”
These partnerships have imbued in their participants a sense of possibility, as well as deepened their recognition of their own limitations and where they can benefit from the work and expertise of others. “What we’ve learned is, over time, really being able to understand what we can and cannot do,” Ted Dezember of KCHA said. “We are housers, we are a housing authority, and what we’re designed to do is make sure that people have high-quality housing and safe communities. We’re not an education agency.” Stephanie Cherrington—the executive director of Eastside Pathways, a KCHA partner—agreed: “What that really means is that every organization has their mission of work. They need to retain that mission of work. They need to continue to offer direct service. King County Housing needs to continue to make sure that people have housing, while at the same time understanding what they can tweak in that mission of work to align and support that agreed upon common goals of the partnership. So those reinforcing activities are really important.” Ultimately, the lessons learned are what can and should a housing entity contribute, other ways to further goals, and that housing agencies are in a position to be a portal to those families—distributing information, hosting activities at the community spaces at their sites, and convening stakeholders.
Some elements of success are tangible, if not quite long-term: do families have stable housing? Are attendance rates going up? Are more students reading on grade level? Vancouver’s Topper said these types of agreed-upon metrics are “quantifiable evidence that [efforts] are working.” From there, she defined success of the joint work with VHA as, “Are we able to really negotiate and work out any kind of hiccups or problems that we’re having with the programs?” While that may be harder to attach a succinct indicator to, looking at the daily, weekly, and monthly actions of the partnership can help answer that question. For Topper, the “ultimate indicator” is system change. In Vancouver, policy changes such as voucher priorities have been one system-level transformation the partnership has achieved. While the organizations continue to work on long-term goals, Topper said their “policies are aligned and we’re both working towards mutual goals” with signed agreements and parties that understand the expectations of the partnership.
But even with some of the easier metrics to define and agree on, much of this work to improve educational outcomes for low-income children remains difficult to gauge. “I think success is a hard thing to measure,” said King County’s Stephen Norman, whose housing authority has data-sharing agreements with three school districts. “For one thing it’s very longitudinal, and you don’t know for probably for a decade or more what the actual outcome will be with the students that you’re trying to assist. The second thing is it’s such a multivariable question that it’s hard to sort of figure out what of the various things that are happening is actually moving the needle, or what combinations of things that are actually happening are moving the needle.”
Although the five sites are in various stages in their use of data sharing with partners, all agree it is essential for success. In Tacoma, then-McCarver principal Janet Gates-Cortez said it took the elementary school and THA a year and a half to get their boards to sign off on their data-sharing agreement, but it showed the strength of the partnership. The data in Vancouver has been vital for the success of their programs because the schools and the housing authority use it to see if they are meeting their intended goals like improved attendance or reductions in mobility. Rachel Langford of Home Forward has used data to track progress, but also has leveraged it to strengthen existing partnerships and create new ones. It’s important, she said, to be “able to show, in pretty short order, when you invite us to the table, we get something done.” Home Forward began with a data-sharing agreement covering just kindergarten enrollment in a single district. Because of the subsequent success, the partnership was able to dramatically expand its data-sharing. “We went back and asked for a much broader data-sharing agreement which we have now—I can’t name everything we have on it, but it’s got behavior, academics, and attendance, discipline, you name it. So now the door is open for us if we want to explore different areas,” she said. Oppenheimer credited a data-sharing agreement template crafted by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities, as well as guidance released by the U.S. departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development. “I think all of those things are in great service toward bringing leadership from education and housing to the table, and seeing the utility in having those cross-sector data-driven conversations.”
Evaluation points are key when thinking through what to put in a data-sharing agreement and what to do once you have one. The research team at King County Housing Authority agreed data sharing is an essential component for success, with the understanding that as much work as getting a data-sharing agreement signed can be, it is not where the work ends. Oppenheimer wants communities to focus on what can be accomplished with the data. Talking as partners about what the data means, looking at trends, and using the information to design or change initiatives is key. What’s the right approach? “I would say starting small and then building out the measures [for an individual program],” she said. Speaking like a true researcher, Oppenheimer said she thinks bringing in the research, evaluation, and measurement staff—whether in-house or through a partnership—early in the process is better. KCHA has had to evaluate programs after they’ve already begun, for example because an initiative began because of a partner priority or performance gap area. But, Oppenheimer said, when able to talk metrics at the beginning, organizations can plan rather than trying to go back to figure out what the data is saying. She also wants to create safeguards for future staff: “I think that bringing those data sharing agreements and data-driven conversations to the table early on definitely can make the program planning and partnership process that much better for housing authorities and school districts that are coming after us,” she said.
And while some communities, such as Seattle, have since narrowed what data they are sharing compared with when they started, Tacoma actually had the reverse issue. One important lesson is that there can be issues if you don’t know how to measure your progress before you’ve begun collaborating. “I think we needed to have a better idea of what we were trying to impact before we deployed something, because I think that I find ourselves asking really good questions as they come up, and then finding that we weren’t asking that question of the residents, and if we were, we weren’t capturing it in our system,” said April Black, the deputy executive director of THA. “Being more thoughtful from the beginning about really what we’re trying to find out would save a lot of time.” For example, for a project hoping to get more people involved in traditional banking systems, the partnership didn’t start out measuring how participants banked. “Now we’re finding that a pretty simple way to define it is, ‘Were they unbanked at the time that they came onto the program and then they get banked, and start having checking, savings, and regular use of their financial accounts?’ Well, you have to ask whether somebody has a checking or savings account at the time that they apply to know whether they changed that reality while they were on the program.” Better data makes for better accountability, but sometimes it’s unclear at the beginning what to collect. For communities that have the capacity (meaning for partnerships without dedicated data staff, this may be onerous) broad data collection can later be refined when it is determined what is actually useful. Home Forward struggled to do so in the early childhood space because so many different systems interact with children that age. School readiness involves the education sector and their metrics, while developmental screenings involve the health sector and their metrics, highlighting the importance of cross-sector collaboration.
Collecting good data is also useful for taking a close look at how components of a partnership are funded and staffed—and reassigning resources when necessary in a smart way. KCHA has begun to examine their allocation of resources across their education efforts to try and ascertain if it’s the right level of investment. They believe it is important in the short time for potential shifting, but also in the long term if their grant funding changes.