by Liz Duffrin
A growing number of public housing authorities are partnering with local schools to improve community outcomes for young children, because when children do better, communities do too.
Ten years ago, Preston Prince, the executive director of Fresno Housing Authority, was seated around the conference table with other community agencies at the first meeting of an early childhood initiative. The initiative’s head asked each agency in turn what it was doing to raise reading achievement, the goal of a regional campaign.
“When it came to me I said, ‘Nothing, we’re a housing authority,’” Prince recalled.
That meeting changed his outlook. Today, the Fresno Housing Authority is one of a growing number of public housing authorities and other affordable housing providers across the country that are forging partnerships with school districts, afterschool providers, health care providers, and other service agencies to better support the educational success of their youngest tenants.
Under Prince’s leadership, that involvement has included hosting afterschool programs and school events at housing authority properties, supporting student health initiatives, and in 2016, opening an early learning center in partnership with Fresno Unified School District.
The housing authority’s mission, according to Executive Director Preston Prince, is to create vibrant communities. “Education is an important piece of that.”
The housing authority’s mission, Prince said, is to create vibrant communities. “Education is an important piece of that,” he explained. “Children’s school success is linked to their long-term health, safety, economic well-being, and level of civic engagement.”
More of a child’s day is spent at home and in the community than at school, Prince added. “If we want kids to be successful at school, we have the responsibility to help them at home.”
Public housing authorities are the ideal place to provide educational support services for children, said Betsey Martens, executive director of Bringing School Home in Boulder, Colorado, a national consultancy for mission-driven affordable housing providers that want to help close achievement gaps.
“Few systems have the reach and the trust that we do as housing providers,” said Martens, who is working with Fresno Housing Authority on how to further increase its impact. “Our staff see our residents throughout the day, every day, 365 days a year.” Across the county, public housing authorities are pursuing a range of strategies to improve learning. Boston Housing Authority was a founding partner in the Smart from the Start program, now an independent nonprofit that includes prenatal education, home visits and education for new parents, educational play groups for young children, parenting workshops, and classes for adults. In Washington, DC, housing is part of a cross-sector Promise Community collaboration in a high-poverty neighborhood working to improve learning from early childhood through college graduation. As part of that effort, the housing authority’s nonprofit subsidiary secured a $12 million loan for a new Educare campus, a state-of-the-art early childhood program.
“Few systems have the reach and the trust that we do as housing providers.”
In Tacoma, Washington, the housing authority won national attention for a successful pilot project that provided heavy rent subsidies for homeless families to reduce transiency at a low-income elementary school, encouraged parent participation in their children’s education, and raised reading achievement.
New resources in the past decade have spurred collaboration between school districts and housing authorities. The federal government encourages cross-sector solutions to improve lives in low-income communities with grants through the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhood initiatives. Nonprofits such as Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta, founded in 2009, are also facilitating the engagement of local schools in holistic community planning to break cycles of intergenerational poverty.
Recent research is bolstering these cross-sector efforts to improve neighborhoods. Harvard’s Opportunity Insights has found that children’s immediate neighborhood influences their life-outcomes: the census tract a child grows up in strongly predicts their future earnings and chances of incarceration and teen birth. Another recent study by Carrie Makarewicz of the University of Colorado Denver found that external influences, including housing stability and neighborhood resources such as parks, libraries and youth activities, contribute to income-based gaps in student achievement. But Makarewicz also found that city planners and schools rarely work together.
Carol Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities, said that while she finds many more housing authorities and school districts collaborating, different funding streams and organization and old mindsets can be impediments to collaboration. “In some places I’ve seen housing authorities blame schools and schools blame housing authorities rather than working together to realize that they can be part of the solution.”
“In some places I’ve seen housing authorities blame schools and schools blame housing authorities rather than working together to realize that they can be part of the solution.”
Funding can be a challenge for collaborative solutions, too. Fresno Housing Authority says that it will take time and new partners to spread promising practices to more of its 78 properties. But its story is an example of what it takes for a public housing authority to get started improving children’s school success: a willingness to bridge the divide with school districts, foster trust, take risks, and dive in.
An Eye Opener
Fresno County is located in California’s Central Valley, the state’s primary agricultural region. The housing authority’s public and affordable housing developments are located in both smaller, rural communities nearby and in Fresno itself, with a population of half a million and one of the nation’s highest rates of concentrated poverty, according to a U.S. Census analysis by 24/7 Wall St.
Nearly a decade ago, when the housing authority was first considering how to partner with its largest school district, it compared the address of its properties and families holding Section 8 vouchers to the boundaries of Fresno Unified School District. Of the district’s 75,000 students, the housing authority found that it served 19,000. That’s a quarter of the whole student population.
“That was an eye opener for us,” said Angelina Nguyen, the housing authority’s chief of staff. “We realized we have a lot of kids in common and we need to be a better partner.”
“We realized we have a lot of kids in common and we need to be a better partner.”
Until then, she said, the services they offered to children at their sites were “random things like tutoring and arts and crafts. We decided to be more intentional about the services available on our property.”
To support academic achievement, the housing authority recruited nonprofit afterschool and summer school providers skilled at leading math and reading activities. Although schools also have these programs, Nguyen said, they often have limited space. Current providers include California Teaching Fellows, which hires undergraduates preparing for a teaching career, and the Boys and Girls Club, which agreed to revise its program to better match district academic goals. Afterschool programs also include time for homework and enrichment such as sports, Latin dance, drumming, career exploration for teens, or even assembling computers.
To help its afterschool providers better focus on specific student needs, the housing authority recently piloted a student data-sharing agreement with Fresno Unified School District. Many housing authorities now have data-sharing agreements with school districts, according to a report by the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. King County Housing Authority in Washington State even includes voluntary parental consent for data-sharing with the school district on its annual lease.
Currently, afterschool providers in Fresno are able to see aggregated data for children at each grade level with the specific math and reading skills the schools need to work on, their overall grade point averages by subject area, and the schools’ attendance rates. This is valuable information, but the critical next step is to get parental permission to access each child’s individual school records. With that level of information, afterschool providers would then be better able to assist a specific child with their particular needs. If a child were having serious difficulties, such as chronic school absence, Nguyen said, a resident service coordinator could knock on the family’s door and offer help.
The housing authority is exploring whether access to children’s school records is an option they could include on a housing application, for families to accept or reject, Nguyen said.
It’s a change they would need to approach cautiously, she acknowledged. “We always want to make sure that parents understand that their child’s school performance is never going to impact their housing. We need to approach this gently and get them to understand why it’s important.”
‘What Do You Need?’
Years ago, the housing authority didn’t communicate well with the school district. Nguyen recalled one instance when it forgot to share construction plans, creating a last-minute panic when a housing development worth of students suddenly needed to enroll in school. Now with children’s educational needs always at the forefront, those conversations happen early.
“We want to have the least disruption possible to children’s academic year,” Nguyen explained. “They have enough challenges as it is.”
Housing authority staff now view any contact with a school district as an opportunity to build relationships. Establishing partnerships, they found, is often as simple as sitting down with a superintendent and asking, what do you need?
When a rural preschool needed help filling empty seats, resident service coordinators knocked on the doors of eligible families.
“We communicate that we are here to help the school district be successful in what they’re doing,” Prince said. “So many people have ideas about education. Districts don’t need a community partner who says, ‘I know how to do it better than you.’”
District and school requests vary. When one superintendent worried that families wouldn’t know how to sign up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act — missing a chance to improve student health and school attendance — Nguyen arranged for a team from the county social service department to help parents sign up at a school site.
When a rural preschool needed help filling empty seats, resident service coordinators knocked on the doors of eligible families. A principal in Fresno wanted more contact with parents. Now her school holds events in the community center at Parc Grove Commons, the housing authority’s largest development. Students can register for classes, parents can have coffee chats with the principal, and teachers hold parent-teacher conferences. In March the school and housing authority hosted a family fun and literacy night.
“The kids were bouncing around from table to table reading books and talking to teachers,” said Artie Padilla, executive director of Every Neighborhood Partnership, who helped organize the event. “We had 300 kids and parents out that night.”
“It was tremendous, it was so exciting,” said the principal, Laura Gemetti. Now she’s helping the housing authority figure out how to replicate similar events for other schools and properties.
A principal in Fresno wanted more contact with parents. Now her school holds events in the community center at Parc Grove Commons, the housing authority’s largest development.
Good ideas that grow out of one partnership are often replicated. For instance, community partners now visit properties annually to assist with Affordable Care Act and Medicaid enrollment. Mobile vision and dental vans use the housing authority properties as sites to provide children with care at little or no cost.
Ideas come from parents, too. Depending on their interests, service coordinators and outside partners deliver workshops on topics ranging from kindergarten readiness to filling out college financial aid forms.
The housing authority also reflects on where it might fill gaps. Currently it’s figuring out how to flag families in its database with children who have reached the age of three or four so a resident service provider can help them enroll in local preschools or transitional kindergarten.
“With the systems and the data we have, we’ve got to be able to do better,” Nguyen said. “We continue to challenge ourselves.”
Burned Building Sparks an Idea
One of the most significant collaborations started when Nguyen placed a call to Deanna Mathies, the district’s executive officer for early learning, on a weekend in 2016. A squatter had just burned down a vacant building near a beautiful, historic home that the housing authority had purchased and recently renovated for community use, though a large portion was still vacant. To prevent this property, called Helm Home, from meeting a similar fate, it needed a tenant quickly. Rent was free.
Mathis and Nguyen were already in frequent contact so when the call came, Mathies had an idea. The district had recently received a 10-year grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to support kindergarten readiness. One goal was to educate children’s caregivers on supporting language development. By the end of the weekend, plans for Helm Home Play & Learn Center were underway.
The center opened in November 2016 in a region of the city where many families hold Section 8 vouchers. Parents or caregivers can drop in with children up to age 5 several times a week for play groups. While the kids play, facilitators model to caregivers how to interact with children to promote literacy development.
“One of the things we’ve learned is to fail forward.”
In some cultures, adults rarely converse with pre-verbal children and avoid using words children don’t yet understand, said Maria Ceballos Tapia, a program manager for the school district. “Some parents are a little bit timid, but if they see the other parents talking to their child and having conversations, they feel like, ‘I can do it too.’”
Caregivers also fill out a questionnaire about their child’s development, and a team of specialists are on hand to consult with families and recommend simple activities to enhance children’s development at home. Agencies such as WIC or mental health providers offer workshops on topics parents request. Families can even borrow educational toys. Behind Helm Home in a carriage house, the partners opened a toy-lending library.
Nguyen said that they weren’t certain at first whether the program would work. But it proved popular enough that they launched Play & Learn groups at two more properties and also a mobile toy and book-lending library. All of these activities help prepare young children for success when they enter school.
Nguyen and Prince advise other housing authorities that want to get involved in education to jump in and take some chances.
“One of the things we’ve learned is to fail forward,” Nguyen said. “If it works, we try to scale it. If it doesn’t work, we scrap it and try again. If we sit around too long, things don’t get done.”
The first step to partnering is just to reach out and listen, she added. “Sometimes it just starts with one conversation.”