Although there has been tremendous advancement in the field around the acceptance and promotion of housing as a foundation to improve life outcomes, the housing and education sectors do not collaborate in many communities. For King County, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver, efforts to intersect emerged from a joint desire to see children and youth achieve better outcomes, whether in terms of education or future self-sufficiency.
Education Is a Pathway Out of Poverty
Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) Executive Director Andrew Lofton believes that education is crucial for upward mobility, and therefore felt it was critical to work with education entities even though doing so was, strictly speaking, outside his purview. “We began to look at ways in which we could interact better with school districts,” he said. “Fundamentally, that came from our approach to how we serve our residents, and fundamentally we’re really thinking about how do we intervene with the whole cycle of poverty? What is it we can do to assist our residents to be successful?” Lofton stressed that no housing authority has a goal of getting people into public housing; the goal is to get them out, which is why SHA wants to find opportunities to help multiple generations of its tenants achieve success. One of those pathways out of poverty is education, an area upon which a houser can have a great impact. “I think it starts, again, from our fundamental belief that housing is a really important platform for success,” he said.
The Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) brought a similar thinking to its housing-education efforts. “We also seek to make [residents’] time with us transforming and temporary. We want them to come to us and succeed, not just as tenants, but as our mission statement contemplates, as parents, students, wage-earners, and builders of assets,” THA Executive Director Michael Mirra said. “We want this for grown-ups certainly, but emphatically for children, because we do not wish them to need our housing when they grow up. We count school success as an important part of that transformation.”
Playing to Each Sector’s Strength
Lofton was quick to say that SHA does not want to make decisions for the school district or impede its work. Rather, it wants to use its position to bolster education efforts. “We will never be, and we should not be, and we don’t want to be an educator—that is not our role from the Housing Authority’s perspective,” Lofton said. “But we do want to create the type of environment that people can get a better education. If they have a stable home, we think they could have a better environment in which they can do their homework, they have a better environment in which they can interact with their colleague, they have a better environment in which they can get exposed to more in-depth information and more in-depth teachings. So they have, now, a better chance to compete in the education world when some of those barriers where a lot of the energy has been focused on just to survive are addressed.
Reducing the Opportunity Gap
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Chief Strategy and Partnerships Officer Brent Jones agrees that the purpose of collaborating closely with SHA is to increase equity. By working together, the two entities are united in their focus to eliminate opportunity gaps and reach students who do not have access to the same resources as their higher-income peers. “It’s great work,” he said. “It’s the right work.” The collaboration has allowed SPS to craft policies with a more attentive eye toward students from low-income families—a focus Jones’ superintendent has stressed the district will focus on going forward. “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,” Jones said. “It’s our number one focus, eliminating opportunity gaps.”
We Cannot Make Change Alone
For Home Forward, officials had a similar worry that, disproportionately, children of color in the school district were either falling behind their white peers or—in many cases—never starting from the same point at all. Rachel Langford, the associate director of education systems alignment at Home Forward, said such a reality in Portland was “unacceptable” and also acknowledged that it is “really difficult for the schools to solve that problem on their own.” By the time a low-income student begins schooling at five years old, they are often already behind their middle- and higher-income peers. Studies have shown that the first five years are a time of critical learning because of how the brain develops. Over the past several decades, research has also shown that low socio-economic status hinders children’s development and school-readiness. Cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as environment, all have an effect regardless of socioeconomic status, but low-income children are more at-risk for poor development. Low-income families are often less able to provide their children with the same quality of learning environments as parents with higher incomes, a factor that many researchers point to as cause for the children’s lower academic performance. It is logical, then, that the systems that interact with children in their earliest years could help better prepare them for the start of their formal education. THA’s Mirra agrees that “children who grow up in deep poverty bring challenges to the schoolhouse door that the fanciest classroom with the best-trained teacher cannot overcome on their own.” By housing families, THA is able to address homelessness and housing instability, and by partnering with schools, THA is able to support other goals like improved educational performance. Mirra started this work by asking, “How can THA spend a housing dollar not just to house someone, but to influence school outcomes?” He knew the housing authority was serving the most poor children in the city, meaning it houses, or pays to house, one in seven enrolled public-school students and one out of every 4.5 low-income enrolled public-school students. By “serving them and their families, we’re deep in their lives,” Mirra said. And that gives the housing authority an opportunity to make a crucial difference.
In Portland, Home Forward believes that working with education entities attempts to address school readiness and also gives the housing authority their pitch as to why housing should be a partner in such efforts. Like THA or any houser, Home Forward has access to children and families in ways other systems do not, since they go to sleep and wake up there. “We feel like our opportunity to engage families, and engage them early, and connect them to high-quality services, is a really valuable role that a housing authority can uniquely play in setting kids up to be more successful once they get to kindergarten—and to supporting parents in those early years, as they are their child’s first teacher.” Lofton expressed similar sentiments: “We are a group that has a number of your students that we can work to support their stability, and then support their potential and their future, by working with you,” he said. Furthermore, like Langford, Lofton believes the school district should not be expected to improve outcomes on their own, and that partnering with SHA will help success come faster. “If we can understand some of the concerns, some of the pressures, some of the challenges that you’re facing in the classroom, there may be some areas that we can mitigate those from our contact with the residents,” he said. A housing authority can keep in contact with residents on behalf of an education system—reinforcing its messages like about attendance, disseminating information, and helping families navigate issues that may arise in school.
Tacoma elementary school then-principal Janet Gates-Cortez echoed this thought from the educator perspective. “I was enthralled about the idea and love partnerships with schools because I believe, as many of the principals do, that we can’t do it alone. And I know that that’s a really common phrase, but really, it’s treating the whole child, and what does that look like? We—the schools and housing—have this shared vision of what that looks like and what our goal is, which really is to break that generational poverty cycle. And really to look at education as a focus for not just the students but also the parents.“
Municipal leaders, like Vancouver City Councilmember Alishia Topper, saw a tighter partnership between housing authorities and school systems as a natural collaboration. “Expanding the roles between housing and education as an administrator in a school district, my ultimate job is to create partnerships that will remove barriers to learning. So, obviously, housing—or the lack of housing—can be an extremely large barrier for students and their families,” she said. “And as a city councilmember, obviously we’re looking at economic development and the vibrancy of our city, and if we don’t have an educated workforce, if we don’t have students making it to graduation, our city won’t be successful.”
School officials who specifically work with low-income families see the benefits, too. Melanie Green, the administrator of Title I engagement and family and community resource centers with Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, said that because the parents of some of these families work as many as three jobs, having a foundation of housing allows them “to focus on employment, on education, and creating a better life for themselves and their children. We see the impact of stable housing.” High mobility rates among students are not only a challenge for the ones who are frequently switching schools, but often lead to worse academic outcomes for all students, not just those who move. “Once you have a stable group in a classroom, they can learn together and form relationships. “That observation isn’t purely anecdotal. As THA’s Mirra put it, “The research is pretty clear that turnover rates of that sort are ruinous to school outcomes for the children who come and go, and their classmates who have to sit there and watch it happen.” Stable housing, on its own, bolsters a productive school environment; a more proactive housing authority can do far more to boost outcomes.