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A Housing Authority’s Education-Based Approach to Homelessness

July 30, 2013

Think back upon your first day of school. Everything is new – teachers, friends, hallways, and playgrounds.

What should I wear? Who will I sit by? Where is the cafeteria?

Now, imagine experiencing “the first day” twice in one school year – or even more. This would be difficult for any child, but the negative effects go beyond the first-day jitters. Teaching becomes more difficult when students frequently come and go. Students lose friends and study partners. The negative impact reverberates.

You might think this kind of moving only occurs in military families or in families where parents must relocate for business. However, with increases in rent and a tough job market, many parents are forced to relocate to find work. For some schools, this results in a high student turnover rate. 

McCarver Elementary School, located in a high-poverty neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, was facing a dramatic student turnover crisis, ranging from 100 percent to 179 percent. Many families were homeless. Those staying at nearby shelters were assigned to McCarver. Families would also take their children out of McCarver due to dwindling economic opportunities – leaving them at a high risk of homelessness. Kids were falling further and further behind in school.

In the fall of 2011, the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) began the McCarver Elementary Special Housing Program, a rental assistance program for 48 families that were homeless or at high risk of homelessness and had a child enrolled at McCarver. The children of these families constitute about 20 percent of the school.

The program provides rental support to help low-income parents pay rent and remain stably housed.

Parents cannot be passive participants in the program. First, they must keep their child enrolled in McCarver to remain eligible for rental support. Second, they pledge to be very involved with their child’s education, from participating in the PTA to being active in other school events. Finally, parents must also work diligently on their own career and financial growth. THA caseworkers and 30 nonprofit partners support parents in their effort to become financially independent.

The Tacoma Public School District has been a full partner in designing and administering this project, welcoming THA caseworkers into the school and providing them with office space. The district has also committed to turn McCarver into an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, raising standards and expectations for the entire school.

Since the program was implemented, we have seen some very positive results – for both parents and children.

 This isn’t a Band-Aid. It’s actually a cure.

Many families have completed educational and training programs and found employment; two have started their own businesses. In the program’s first year, participating children experienced three times the gains in reading compared to other low-income students. In addition, while the overall turnover remains high at McCarver, the rate for students participating in the McCarver program was a mere 4.5 percent at the end of the first year.

In an article written by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, Carol Ramm-Gramenz, a counselor at McCarver, said, “This isn’t a Band-Aid. It’s actually a cure.”

The McCarver program is one part of our Education Project, an effort to find out how a housing authority can not only house needy families but also improve the school outcomes for their children and improve the schools that serve low-income populations.

Success in the classroom starts with stability at home. Through THA’s education programs, we’re working to make the first day of school – and every day that follows – enjoyable and rewarding for every kid.

Read about THA’s Education Project on our website, and learn more about the McCarver Program on Facebook

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