These housing authorities and education partners have clearly shown that intensive collaborations can work in the Pacific Northwest. But are these gains possible in other regions or states with different strengths and different needs? “I think this type of collaborative work is possible in any community,” said Melanie Green of Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver.
The successes in Washington and Oregon can be traced to dynamic leaders, a culture of collaboration and experimentation, and other factors. The strides these partnerships made could be echoed elsewhere, even if the organizations in question don’t have the same built-in advantages. The right philosophy is essential. “I think that they’d need to approach the work with that larger umbrella and larger mission and goal of setting aside their jurisdictional boundaries, and really working towards a larger goal,” said Megan Hyla of the King County Housing Authority. “I think as long as they have that mindset in the forefront that that would help them.” But just as important as an ambitious vision is a manageable start. An important approach to a partnership is starting small, several interviewees cautioned. Doing so helps establish trust and may be more likely to set collaboration on a sustainable trajectory of growth.
While it’s true, as April Black said, that communities in the Pacific Northwest are extremely receptive to the work that partnerships of housing authorities and school systems want to do, she said that isn’t the only factor for the success they’ve seen. “I think that there’s a closeness between the executive directors here that helps them have conversations about the problems that they’re facing and how they might be able to solve them, rather than them working alone,” she said. Other potential partnerships, then, can accomplish a lot by opening and maintaining lines of communication, even if their communities are less supportive than those in Oregon and Washington.
While interviewees agreed that every community faces its own challenges, they believe that their partnerships could be mimicked elsewhere. “For other housing authorities, if you were going to replicate what we’ve done, you’d have to take a look at what the structure is at the schools that you serve, and what would be a way that housing could help them the most,” said Jan Wichert of VHA. In any community, however, making sure disparate systems can come together means identifying the right stakeholders. “I think our success has come from knowing the key players in the community to bring to the table and having the willingness to come to the table and have difficult conversations,” Green said,“and really looking at our systems and how to align them.” The particulars of each partnership can be molded around community-specific goals. “I expect the program models need to be intimately local to account for what’s going on on the ground,” said Tacoma Housing Authority Executive Director Michael Mirra. However, he said, almost every region has a few things in common. “Most communities have a housing authority and a school district who share those challenges,” he observed. He said that they just need to get together and have a productive discussion.
The mission that bonds together a partnership of housing authority, school system, and other organizations should drive any area’s attempt at success, suggested Sammi Iverson, an elementary school housing assistance case worker at THA. “The model [of McCarver Elementary] could be extremely successful [elsewhere], but I think it has a lot to do with the landscape, with the willingness to partner, the willingness to make commitments, and the willingness to work with this vulnerable population, so it’s going to hit multiple spots to see success... We’re all really trying for the same outcome, which is to stabilize students, and to see progress in the lives of families and kids. And that’s something that I don’t think anyone would have a hard time getting behind.”
While interviewees acknowledge that their work is aided by sympathetic legislators in Oregon and Washington, they do not believe that having an elected official as a champion is necessary for success. What you do need, said Vancouver City Councilmember Alishia Topper, is strong local leadership. ”You need a leader and a champion within your school district, and you need a leader and a champion within your housing authority,” she said. “If those two people can find a way to really spark up interest within the two organizations, it will be successful.” Communities can get a leg up on this work even if they do not have help or attention from a politician—and then, when ready, make the case to one. “If you have the relationships with your Congressperson and you’re able to go show them that exact intersection between housing and the education front, and show that you have a great relationship with your school principal, and your McKinney-Vento liaisons, and really get them out there to see what that looks like, and to show them people who’ve been impacted by your programs and your partnerships—that makes a huge difference,” said Megan Hyla of KCHA.
An interest in throwing new things at the wall helps, too. “I think there’s an ethic here of a willingness to experiment and a willingness to reach out and look at non-traditional ways of supporting our clientele,” said Lofton. “So, with that ethic, then I think that that generates opportunities to do new things and to be a little bit creative, and to take some risks where otherwise you wouldn’t. I do think that the housing authorities here have traditionally been in that kind of mode of wanting to reach out and branch out and do things differently.” In Seattle and the rest of the Pacific Northwest, housing authorities and their partners have been willing to do this. Other regions hoping to emulate the city’s success may want to emphasize creativity and risk-taking, too. As Courtney Cameron explained, “What is unique about the way that we’re trying to work is we’re trying to take the best idea that can be replicated, that can be scaled, and try to take that forward.” This daringness isn’t simply in the water, Janet Gates-Cortez stressed. It’s a result of the choices of leaders—choices that leaders in other parts of the country could make, too: “Part of why it’s happening [in Tacoma] is because of the mindsets of the Michael Mirras, and the superintendent, that really values innovation and recognizes that how we’ve been doing it has not been getting the results that we want.”
No matter what, any partnership takes time—something any community can invest. “I would say it takes a year to really develop the partnerships and relationships related to a particular group or neighborhood or school. I think it takes more than a year to do that across the system,” said Cameron. And organizations should ensure they are ready first. “I think there’s some initial work that each agency has to do within themselves first before forming the partnership,” said Kathlyn Paananen. “I like that [our] partnership started with goal-alignment—so what are the overall Seattle Housing Authority’s missions, what’s the school district’s mission? ... I think there needs to be some thoughtful, critical thinking within each agency first, and some support to really make this work happen.”
Although it’s not necessary for partnerships that have not yet begun, data can elucidate challenges and point the way toward some solutions. “What I would say to those school districts [considering a partnership with a housing authority] is, ‘Look at your data, what is the data telling you? Where do investments need to happen?’” said James Bush, the director of school and community partnerships at SPS. “And you can use that information to help build bridges with city or county municipalities, housing authorities, and being able to speak to what the issues are—and then pivot that to what are the opportunities for us to make an impact in improving student outcomes and building from that.”
Ultimately, though, what will drive a successful partnership is passion and a commitment to a larger mission of improving outcomes. “I don’t know that there’s anything unique here that can’t be done anywhere else,” said Stephanie Cherrington, executive director of Eastside Pathways. “[If staff can] see the opportunity, they see the potential, and they’re bringing that personal passion and commitment, and bringing to bear the skills that they have… when the work gets really hard, and we have to hold each other accountable, that’s when we start leaning in on that relationship with each other.”
Collaborations between housing authorities and educational and other systems will be increasingly important around the country because the role of public housers is fundamentally changing—which KCHA’s Stephen Norman interprets as a moment of opportunity housing authorities anywhere could seize. Because of the changes to federal housing stock, if housing authorities “get away from worrying about whether the roofs are water-tight and whether the boilers are working, they can start to shift back to what is the real mission of housing authorities, which is around social impact,” Norman said. “And there is arguably no more important role for housing authorities and public housing than to ensure the children growing up in subsidized housing don’t become the next generation of applicants to public housing.” This work will be replicable, because it needs to be.
As for the Innovation Team, its approach of knowledge-sharing is replicable in other settings and is worth pursuing. “Coming from a school world, I come from the world of professional learning communities, I really think there’s going to be value from this group continuing to come together and really kind of build our own learning agenda,” said Ted Dezember of KCHA, who described the Innovation Team’s efforts to build a set of best practices that officials elsewhere could adopt. “It would be a common vocabulary and a common approach that we could use together, and we might be able to communicate that to the rest of the country in a better way.”
The members of the Innovation Team stressed that to ultimately attain the benefits that they have enjoyed by sharing information and experience, the most important thing to do is ensure that meetings occur regularly. If there’s a high concentration of housing authorities in a region, there’s nothing to stop them from getting together—they have similar organizational structures, funding arrangements, and leadership. “I most definitely think that it could be replicated,” Dezember said.