Disagreements on pizza toppings aside, the four Washington state housing authorities and one from Oregon that form the Pacific Northwest Housing & Education Innovation Team all agree that their bi-monthly meetings are worthwhile.
Pacific Northwest Housing & Education Innovation Team
Before they settled on the name Pacific Northwest Housing & Education Innovation Team, the group initially thought to meet because they are all housing authorities with the Moving to Work designation, with meetings first occurring between King County, Seattle, and Tacoma Housing Authorities. When the group started to think about a joint research project, Home Forward was brought into the fold in 2014. Phone meetings to explore widening the partnership began in the spring of 2015, and Vancouver Housing Authority was added to the collaborative. When the gatherings became more formal in the spring of 2015, the team was still calling themselves the MTW Policy, Research, and Evaluation Group. The five housing authorities met every other month with phone calls in between through the Spring of 2016 as they started to discuss “education-focused frameworks with the idea that a similar approach could be applied to other areas such as health or economic opportunity,” Rachel Langford of Home Forward said. The housing authorities in King County, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver don’t use the exact same approaches to improve educational outcomes for their residents, but every agency and each partner is committed to the mission. The team formed with an education focus in early fall of 2016 because they all share a desire to meet regularly to identify ways that PHAs can most effectively leverage housing as a platform to improve educational outcomes for the 48,000 residents 0-18 years of age that their agencies house. The Innovation Team seeks to identify promising practices, develop policy recommendations, improve mechanisms for data sharing with education partners, track similar metrics and indicators, share and align to common metrics of success, design ways to take effective programming to scale, and engage with and learn from other PHAs and education partners.
Most recently, the group met over the phone on January 19, 2018, because they could not make schedules work for an in-person rendezvous. Representatives from all five housing authorities and a colleague from Seattle Public Schools—the group is still working out how best to incorporate education partners into the collaborative—came prepared to discuss their current and potential future work around moving the needle on outcomes for the kindergarten to third grade ages. One of the most valuable parts of the collaborative is hearing what’s working—and what’s not—for each community. “What’s really nice is that rather than having to go through executive directors, or department directors, or something, it seems like within these five agencies we all know our peers,” April Black of Tacoma Housing Authority said. “We all know their emails, their direct numbers—become acquaintances of each other. We can call each other up and get a call back and have frank conversations about how things are really working, and what they’re thinking about.”
At these gatherings housing authority staff that focus on education have spent more time talking about programs geared toward elementary students, while staff working on policy and research have focused a bit more on partnerships with the local community colleges or employment groups, Black said. The professional peers help each other dig through challenges and best practices for topics like privacy, data sharing, and program evaluation. Although the team has a regular meeting schedule, multiple members noted that they reach out and talk to each other more frequently. “By building relationships across housing authorities, we connect far more than every other month just with phone calls, and with opportunities to touch base, or ask questions, or a point of advocacy that we want to check with somebody else, funding opportunities and other things,” Courtney Cameron, then of Seattle Housing Authority said. “We have the support of each of our own organizations to take the time to do that every month—to meet for three to four hours—and it’s absolutely been beneficial to supporting the work in the region.”
The Innovation Team started its initial gatherings by discussing tenets of a successful partnership and what that means for their ongoing work. Each member shared what they thought was working particularly well in their respective communities and what they wanted the other housing authorities to know about. As the group was still forming, it took some time for the members “to get beyond ‘this a good idea,’ to ‘so now what are we going to do with it?’” Jan Wichert of Vancouver Housing Authority said. But now, she thinks the collaboration has a “pretty good framework.”
Learning From Peers
The geographic proximity mixed with like-minded values created the perfect environment for the Innovation Team to form. As Executive Director Michael Mirra of Tacoma Housing Authority said, “With our public housing authority neighbors in shouting distance just up or down the freeway...[the group’s] become a good arena for comparing notes, comparing data, exchanging ambitions.” Seattle Housing Authority has also taken the information, latest research on challenges and what people are facing in the group to then to inform their partners at the school district, Executive Director Andrew Lofton said.
- Seattle Housing Authority
- Tacoma Housing Authority
- King County
- Home Forward
Rachel Langford of Home Forward saw immediate effects when she became part of the team: “I’ve brought back those lessons and shared them with my organization as we start to think about how to leverage the work more,” she said. Langford recalled the Team's site visit in Vancouver and how valuable the experience was for her. “We just got to see one of their fully baked, fully loaded site-based efforts there, which was fantastic. And I think we all were just scribbling down notes about community building,” she said. After that visit, Educational Programs Coordinator Cara Ianni from King County Housing Authority followed up with Vancouver about their budget and other questions to consider starting a similar program in King County.
Multiple members stressed that one of the other most useful components of the team is the fact that it has created space to discuss what’s not working. “When you hear about how organizations are doing, you don’t hear about what failed, or what was really hard, or what you thought was going to be awesome and it turned out to be a flop,” said Langford. "And what’s great about this group is now we’ve built enough trust over the last year that we’re not afraid to talk about the stuff that we might even be well into and have questions about its effectiveness and get ideas from each other about how to change course.” The interchange of ideas and the opportunity to get feedback on challenges has helped Seattle Housing Authority “sort through and work through some of the problems” they’ve encountered, Lofton said.
Moving the Work Forward
The Innovation Team has shown its members that discussion won’t only help them form a better regional partnership, but also have an impact beyond the Pacific Northwest. “There’s just been a lot of cross-pollination,” said Rachel Langford, “and not only sharing of best practices, because that’s important, but I feel like that’s what we all do sort of on the national scale.”
The meetings, attendees said, have allowed them to think differently, from a higher perspective, about their everyday work. “The questions that are generated out of those meetings are what’s most interesting to me because of that cross-sector type of thinking,” said Black of THA. “We think very differently than those who are in the school systems, and when the counselors come, or the McKinney-Vento liaisons come from the school districts... those people are also focused on students and housing but in a different way than we are, and I think it helps us get out of our box and think a little bit differently. I think that that’s how some of these programs have been developed, actually, through understanding what the questions are from the school district level.”
Those questions help drive improvements to programming on the ground level. “So what examples can we bring to the data sharing, being an important piece of infrastructure?” asked Cameron. “What examples can we bring to some of the other elements that have been identified? And what might we add to that body of work? One thing, and I’ve brought this up in that collaborative, is really concerned about the question of scale and replication, and one question we need to be asking as a housing authority with our education partners is, 'What is worth scaling and replicating?' Ultimately, success is dependent on answering that question. You’ve got to do other things to even get to that question, but if we don’t answer that question well and understand the data related to a particular project, and whether it was successful or not, we can’t even get to the scale or replication.”
Through the team, joint discussions can lead to joint efforts, like an idea the group had to pool funding to pay for a research project by an outside evaluator. “I’m eager to see where that will lead us,” said Mirra of THA. It also shows how partnerships can save money and be more effective by combining resources. Although the group is not currently pursuing this option for a variety of reasons, they recognize the potential. Black said, “There’s been some—it’s almost like some buying power in that, where we’re not having to pay to have new models built every time, we’re able to see how the model worked for one housing authority and then just paying to have our data inserted into the same model rather than reinventing the wheel.”
Not only is the pooling of funds useful, so is the pooling of data. “There’s been a lot of good thought that has gone into how can we really show not only the outcomes, but how can we sort of agree upon defined leading indicators?” said Jenn Ramirez Robson, Director of Resident Services of KCHA. “At the end of the day, oftentimes when you’re looking at these, you’re trying to say the same thing and measure the same things. But it’s a challenge to make sure that what you’re measuring actually makes sense.”
And then there’s the value of seeing how your peers with similar structures and funding have achieved something—which, particularly for housing authorities in the same region, can provide important lessons. “We are, most of us, in Washington. So, when one housing authority has had success with something, we know at least the schools they’re working with should have the same kinds of limitations as schools we’re working on, and that helps,” said Jan Wichert of VHA. “For instance, when we were doing our data sharing agreement I could show Vancouver Seattle’s data-sharing agreement and say, ‘see, this is how they did it,’ and that was really great. You know, it wasn’t like Vancouver didn’t want to, but knowing that another school did it makes it easier for everybody.”
The same is true for educators working with other educators: It’s not only about identifying similarities, but also differences. “It keeps you out of your bubble, to see what other people are doing,” said Kisa Hendrickson of Highline Public Schools. “Are there things that we could be improving on? Are there things that we’re doing really well that we can share with other people? It’s really important in our area as well, South King County, because we have a pretty high mobility rate, and we know our students and families are going to our bordering school district.” Because students may move back and forth throughout school districts in the same region, communication is key to keeping track of those youth.
Joining together for political outreach as a group has amplified the Innovation Team’s voice. For example, after the four Washington state-based members of the team wrote to U.S. Senator Patty Murray, she asked them to write about some of the education and housing work going on in the state from which others around the country might learn.
Ultimately, the meetings are about producing a lot more than just discussion, troubleshooting, and information-sharing. This past summer, for example, the members tested out doing a joint initiative with each site hosting a summer reading contest for residents. “Portland blew everyone out of the park,” said Wichert. Over the past six months, the Team has worked on deciding on common measures all five sites would use, and then also employing common programming in each community.