Maria Zarraonandia and her 9-year-old daughter Julianna were moving every couple of weeks. After Zarraonandia lost her job due to a back injury, she was homeless, staying with friends and at hotels from Seattle to Tacoma.
Though her daughter attended White Center Heights Elementary, Zarraonandia was afraid she would have to enroll her elsewhere while they moved frequently.
That’s when a social worker suggested she sign up for a housing program through the King County Housing Authority (KCHA) and the Highline School District. Zarraonandia could get short-term rental assistance for housing near White Center Heights Elementary, access case management to help her find a new job and keep Juliana enrolled in school and with her family.
Zarraonandia was excited when they were accepted in the program. But her excitement couldn’t match that of Julianna when she realized she could stay at White Center Heights with her teacher and her friends.
“She started screaming and running around,” Zarraonandia said.
Zarraonandia and her daughter are part of the KCHA’s partnership with Highline School District and several service organizations working around the area, which includes White Center, Burien and surrounding communities.
The partnership included building a neighborhood called Greenbridge in White Center on Eighth Avenue Southwest, just south of West Seattle in unincorporated King County. The street is lined with apartment buildings and a slate of community centers and social services: A Boys and Girls Club, a branch of the King County Library System, an early childhood program called Educare and a King County Public Health office.
The partnership is one of three “place-based initiatives” KCHA has undertaken that links subsidized housing with education and community support, creating a network of educational and community services intentionally coordinated to serve low-income families.
It’s just one example of a trend among regional housing authorities of taking on education as a core part of their work. In Boston, New York and several cities around Washington state, housing authorities are partnering with local school districts to address housing instability and its impact on student performance.
Locally, efforts at KCHA, the Seattle Housing Authority and the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) have grown out of a recognition that unstable housing can lead to low achievement in the classroom. Local jurisdictions are experimenting with the idea that housing providers and educators can do better for low-income families when they’re working together.
“Now schools understand that housing is a big part of the equation, and [housing authorities] understand that, hey, we have all these kids in the school districts, and we can help,” said Rhonda Rosenberg, spokesperson for KCHA.
Housing authorities are in a better position to address issues that educators often don’t have the ability to manage.
“Children who grow up in deep poverty and trauma bring challenges through the schoolhouse door that the best-trained teacher in the fanciest classroom cannot address on their own,” said THA Executive Director Michael Mirra. “And near the top of that list is homelessness.”
Mirra said that housing authorities exist to provide transformative experiences for their clients, which necessitates an emphasis on education.
“We develop properties and communities, some of them quite large, that will not succeed unless the schools that serve them succeed,” Mirra said.
In February, the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities will host a summit in Washington, D.C., to convene educators and housing providers to talk about the growing movement.
Local housing authorities are pursuing this work with grant support, but in the coming legislative session, Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) is introducing the Homeless Student Stability Act with support from Columbia Legal Services that would provide funding to create other partnerships between housing providers and schools around the state.
McCarver Elementary School
THA was among the earliest agencies to link housing with educational supports. The agency is trying to weave education into its work in small and large ways, given that the agency houses one of every seven students in the Tacoma Public Schools system, said THA’s Mirra. When families visit many of THA’s sites, including the main offices at South L Street, they find shelves lined with books that kids can take home.
THA’s largest effort is its pilot project at McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. This school year, 95 percent of the school’s students are on free and reduced-price lunch. Prior to THA’s involvement in the area, the student body had been in flux with students leaving, then re-entering and new students enrolling. This constant change remade the student body over and over again.
“The research is pretty clear that kind of mobility is ruinous on the educational outcomes of the children who come and go and their classmates who have to sit there and watch it happen,” Mirra said.
THA started the pilot with 50 formerly homeless families to see what would happen if the agency tied subsidized housing to schools. To participate, parents have to keep their children enrolled in McCarver, be involved with their children’s education, work on career and financial growth, and share data on the families’ progress.
In exchange, they get a housing subsidy with a flat rant that increases periodically and access to two full-time case managers who have offices at McCarver, along with other social support.
The five-year program is in its fourth year and has shown promising results. Within a year of starting, students’ reading test scores increased. The mobility rate at the school also dropped, and among the 50 families that participate in the pilot program, the mobility rate is almost nonexistent.
Case managers Trisha Mozo and Dana Duncan said the program has been unlike any other they’ve worked for before. Being in school, they have easy access to the families because they enter the same building every day.
“I’ve never worked so close with a school or had such a focus on the children’s needs,” Duncan said.
Ramona Millspaugh and her two grandchildren are part of the program. She said the program has helped her grandchildren at school and helped her look for work. It’s also created a small community of participants at the school who have become friends.
“It can really turn somebody’s life around,” Millspaugh said. “I remember how separate everyone was when the program first started. They didn’t talk. Now it’s different; it’s ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ It kind of pulls us together like a family.”
The parents are progressing, too, working toward employment and being self-sufficient, said Jean Brownell, manager of THA’s Education Project.
“I’ve been most impressed by the parent outcomes,” she said.
Four years ago, there were seven employed adults among the 50 families, according to a study by Geo Education and Research. By August of 2013, 29 were employed and the average household monthly income had nearly doubled from $436 a month to $836. But Brownell said many still struggle to afford their rent.
Highline School District
KCHA has established partnerships in Kent, Bellevue and White Center, where Zarraonandia and her daughter live. In each community KCHA is linking the district with housing and a network of service providers to support families with children from birth.
The families may live in public housing or in market-rate housing with a Section 8 voucher or through a short-term housing subsidy in what is called rapid rehousing run by KCHA and Neighborhood House. Once housed, they are surrounded by dozens of programs and services to support families.
The KCHA, schools and service providers coordinate their programs to support each other. White Center Heights Elementary School, for example, wanted to prevent a decline in student reading skills over the summer, so the Boys and Girls Club just around the corner from the school emphasized reading.
Alan Spicciati, chief accountability officer at the Highline School District, said it’s good government when different agencies work together to serve families in communities instead of in isolation.
The results are striking at White Center Heights Elementary, Spicciati said. In the 2011-12 school year, less than 41 percent of students in third through fifth grades passed their reading tests. The following school year, the success rate surpassed 50 percent for the same grade levels.
KCHA is working with the Highline School District to facilitate the same type of coordination there between the elementary schools and early childhood education. They hope to start aligning their work for babies, so they aren’t behind by the time they start school.
“We want to see if we can eliminate the achievement gap before one even starts,” said Ted Dezember, senior resident services manager for educational initiatives at KCHA. “It’s the school district getting directly involved with babies.”
Why it works
White Center Heights Principal Anne Reece said stable housing makes a huge difference. Before, the school was dealing with a highly mobile group of students. Now, students are staying in the same schools with the same teachers for years.
“It’s hard to get traction around programs when there’s so much movement,” Reece said. “The bonus of working with housing is you have more stable housing. You’ve got kids for four or five years, and you can really get some traction. As you’re trying to figure out what’s working with these kids, they’re not moving on you.”
Educators and housing authorities are already working on expanding the existing programs and bringing them to other jurisdictions.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting school districts and housing authorities around the Puget Sound with close to $2 million in grants.
The foundation is also facilitating meetings among people involved in this program to share what’s working.
The combination of housing, education and outside support is making a huge difference, said Kollin Min, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation.
“There’s a lot of things we can do within the classroom, but there’s a whole range of out-of-classroom support that can make kids get to school in a better place to learn,” Min said.
Legislators in Olympia considered two bills in 2013 to expand similar programs to other housing providers. Neither made it out of committee.
Even so, Columbia Legal Services wants to make another attempt during the upcoming legislative session, seeking money for partnerships around the state that will connect housing providers and schools. Katara Jordan of Columbia Legal Services said it’s a tough year to ask for funding, but the nonprofit wants to get money for program staff as a result of the McCleary decision, a Washington Supreme Court ruling ordering lawmakers to fully fund education.
Jordan said the success of these existing programs could provide the impetus to expand elsewhere.
“We’re seeing preliminary success with those partnerships, so we’re trying to see if our state would be willing to fund some more,” she said.
PHOTO GALLERY: For pictures click on links Photography by Daniel Bassett
Maria Zarraonandia said the partnership between the King County Housing Authority and Highline School District helped her find a place in her home community in White Center and keep her daughter enrolled in White Center Heights Elementary School.
A class of third graders at McCarver Elementary School, where one of the first partnerships between a housing authority and school started four years ago. Although the program was opened to just 50 of the school’s families, it has helped reduce the high turnover of students throughout the year.
Teacher Yao Lien works with a student at McCarver Elementary School, where 50 families were invited to join a pilot program that provides housing subsidies and case management in exchange for keeping kids enrolled in the same school.
McCarver Co-Principal Janet Gates-Cortez and Tacoma Housing Authority Education Project Manager Jean Brownell spoke at McCarver Elementary School in December. The pilot program was one of the earliest projects linking housing and education, now a growing trend across the US.
Dana Duncan, a Tacoma Housing Authority case worker based at McCarver Elementary School, said this program is unlike any she’s ever worked for. She has direct access to families who show up at the school building daily.