Tacoma Housing Authority’s Impact on Education
The Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) Education Project began in 2011 in an effort to help low-income and previously homeless children do well in school and set them on a path for educational and career success for the future. The project has two main goals: academic success for each individual student that the program serves and success for the schools that are part of the project.
Michael Mirra, the THA’s executive director, says the agency is especially well positioned to help on education issues because of its strong ties in the community. “We house or help to house one out of every seven public school students and one out of every 4.5 low-income students. We’re deep into the lives of these families,” says Mirra. “We provide supportive services. This gives us influence over behavior and choices.”
Key THA Educational Programs
The THA has implemented a children’s reading program where all THA offices contain bookshelves stocked with children’s books. “Lots of children come through our offices and now they get a book and a soft word about the importance of reading and the child can go home with a book, perhaps to a household that doesn’t have too many books,” says Mirra. “Parents now come to our offices for the books even if they don’t have any other reason to come, which we love.”
McCarver Elementary School Special Housing Program
McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma was chosen as part of the THA Education Project because the school has a large population of homeless students, as well as the highest rate of children who enroll in and withdraw from school within the school year. To help keep McCarver students with their class for the full year, the THA offers rental assistance and case management services to the families of homeless students attending McCarver’s kindergarten, first or second grades. In addition, the THA brings in partners that provide other support services, such as job training and financial literacy classes for parents and school enrichment for kids. Eligible families can access these services for up to five years.
To qualify for this assistance from the THA, the children must remain students at McCarver and parents must be involved in their child’s schoolwork. Parents also collaborate with THA partners and specialists on a self-sufficiency plan that helps parents prepare for when the five years of assistance ends.
With the help of the THA, McCarver Elementary School has also implemented the Primary Years International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. “Few elementary schools elsewhere in the U.S. have an IB program. By starting it now, we prepare our students for this challenging program in middle school and high school, as well,” says Christine Hinds, Director of Elementary Education for the Tacoma School District.
Hinds says the outcomes from the first two years of the THA Education Project are strong. Rates of students withdrawing after the school year began dropped from 107% in the year before the initiative began to 75% after the second year. Reading scores for children living in THA housing increased by 22% in the first year, three times faster than other children at the school. The gains continued during the second year of the program.
The THA’s Mirra says “We wanted the school district to…do whatever leading edge thinking said to be necessary to turn a school around.” Mirra says the school district “really stepped up, welcomed us warmly to McCarver, gave office space to our case workers and didn’t need any convincing from us that a public housing authority has a role to play.”
College Bound Scholarship Enrollment
The THA aims to sign up all of its 8th grade residents in Washington State’s College Bound Scholarship Program (CBS), which makes college affordable for low-income students through grants rather than loans. The CBS program calls itself “a promise the state has made to every low-income child in the state.” Requirements for the scholarship include that a child graduate from high school with a grade point average of 2.0 or higher, refrain from getting into any serious trouble with the law and enroll in a college program immediately following high school.
“This is a very valuable promise,” says Mirra. “This is a life-transforming promise, especially nowadays with the crisis of college debt [impacting] the present generation of young people.”
Enrollment in the CBS program must happen by the end of eighth grade and the THA determined that they could help because they have experience assisting families with necessary paperwork for their public housing. To help facilitate sign-up, the THA added the CBS application to the forms that families fill out every year to stay in their THA housing. Within three years, the THA reached a sign up rate of 100 percent.
Benefits to Tacoma Public Schools
Hinds was interested in partnering with the THA because “these kids came to school anxious every single day.” Our focus, says Hinds, is on developing the whole child “which we do through community partnerships that look at not only education but also their health and safety.”
Hinds says that she has seen amazing growth in the involvement of parents whose families live in THA housing. Moving forward, the Tacoma School District and the THA will share a critical common goal: strengthening teacher engagement with children in THA housing.