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What a School Needs to Hear

While many entities agree in theory that they should work together, institutions like schools are often constrained by regulations as well as an ingrained approach to how to help this target population. In Vancouver, the superintendent and the board adopted policies to address the challenges faced by low-income students.

If people don’t know where to start and they’re curious about it, and may want to engage, I would say that kids can’t learn if they don’t have a place to sleep. They’re going to be worried about where they’re going to live, they’re going to be worried about where they’re going to cook their food, and housing is an essential need. And if you can create partnerships with your housing authorities, then you’re likely to have better educational outcomes for your students. So for educators, that’s our goal. Let’s get kids through the finish line to graduation.

Alishia Topper

Vancouver City Councilmember

Working with VHA is so vital for our kids and our families. Because if kids aren’t stably housed, then they won’t be successful in school. And so we come at it from an educator’s perspective: We want kids to come to school ready to learn, succeed, and thrive. The partnership grew out of the natural idea that if our students are stably housed, they’ll be successful in school.

Melanie Green

Evergreen Public Schools, Vancouver

Often, hearing it from your own peers is the necessary jumpstart. Both housers and educators interviewed said it was helpful to know one's counterpart in another community, with similar structures and funding, was able to work on intersecting housing and education. Janet Gates-Cortez, a former principal at McCarver Elementary School in the Tacoma School District, gives tours to other educators and introduces colleagues to the partners McCarver has cultivated to help her professional peers envision how they can create their own partnerships in their communities. Mirra does the same when working with other housers to help them start efforts to improve education outcomes for low-income children. He advises that schools are most attentive when they hear from another school and encourages “intra-tribal communications” as the place to start.

For education entities that are hesitant to work with a housing authority, the case must be made for their value to the educational process. “People thought of us as a program, and I think had us kind of off to the side but weren’t thinking about the sheer number of children that we had contact with. We had [the kids’] attention, and the ability to engage and leverage that involvement,” Langford said, describing how she worked to get Home Forward a seat at the proverbial table. Housers may have to work hard to illustrate how they could assist educators. “I think it starts with a listening conversation where you ask the schools what they are struggling with, particularly what is outside of the school’s four walls, and figure out where the housing authority can be value added to that,” King County Housing Authority (KCHA) Executive Director Stephen Norman said. “The fact is that children spend only a small fraction of their week in school, the rest is spent out of the school either in the home or on the streets, and a lot of the future success of children is determined by factors outside of the school classroom, and that’s where housing authorities can help.” Housing authorities can help schools, he said, by communicating and coordinating with parents on behalf of educators. “Parental attitudes, parental behavior patterns, engagement between parents and schools is absolutely critical, and I think that’s where you can see real value added by the housing authorities.”

  • I think this is the issue of our time, to make sure that the students and families that have been on the fringes in terms of having access and opportunity are considered, and considered first.

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    Brent Jones

    Chief Strategy & Partnerships Officer, Seattle Public Schools

  • I think that the cross-sector collaboration is going to be the future of this country and of this work. We can’t be housers, educators, and healthcare providers. We need to be really leveraging the strengths of each sector, and sharing information, and sharing resources to best impact the results of the people trying to access each of our individual programs.

    April Black

    Deputy Executive Director, Tacoma Housing Authority

  • I think we ought to be willing to make that investment, that choice of saying “We’re going to invest in our kids, we’re going to invest in our future, and we’re going to work as hard as we can to level the playing field for those individuals.” It should be unacceptable for us to look the other way, or to not be willing to take another risk—to challenge ourselves to create something better. So I believe in the partnership.

    Stephen Norman

    Executive Director, King County Housing Authority

 Of course, some reticence can remain. But there’s a compelling case these partnerships can make, one prong of which is that they not only strengthen educational efforts, but also guard against future bumps in the road. Housing authorities also have an intimate understanding of families’ cultural backgrounds, nuances that might escape schools. “We have scholars at all different ages and we are preparing Seattle’s youth,” Courtney Cameron, formerly of the Seattle Housing Authority, said, “We take that really seriously. And those youth come with multiple languages, with different understandings of community, with different needs, and we need to meet them where they are and listen, and then we need to act. And the future of the city depends on us doing our jobs well and listening to the students we serve.” 

Still, whether a partnership begins with a small goal or a big mission, it’s important to be clear about what your organization brings to the table in order to assuage any reticence from your partners. “I think when you’re running a school your focus is education. So, when you have partners coming in saying that they want to support you with the educational goals, I think the natural reaction for school staff is, ‘Well, don’t you just do housing? What would you have to do with this?’” said Kisa Hendrickson, the chief engagement and partnership officer of Highline Public Schools. “So, it’s really a matter of outlining and being very clear: ‘Here’s our role, here’s your role, and here’s what they’re bringing to the table.’” In the case of KHCA, its education partners valued the partnership from the start, she said. “What I appreciate about King County Housing Authority is, I never got the sense that they were trying to step outside of their natural role or lane. It was really more about making the connections.” KHCA was also able to connect with families and students in a way school staff could not, Hendrickson acknowledged. “There’s an opportunity for the schools to go deeper with the families because of the staff that King County Housing Authority has.”