It may seem intuitive that school reform should be focused on what goes on inside schools — but, in fact, such a singular focus isn’t enough, as current reform efforts have sadly shown. It is impossible to divorce a student’s life outside of school with how well he or she does in class. Most children who are sick, tired, anxious, depressed, hungry, distracted or homeless aren’t likely to be high academic achievers.

That’s why health care reform is a form of education reform. And that’s why housing policy has a strong link to education outcomes. In Tacoma, Wash., somebody decided to take some action around that link.

In 2006, the student turnover rate at McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma was 179 percent. (How is 179 percent possible? See below.) By 2009, the Tacoma Housing Authority’s waiting list for public housing units and housing vouchers were seven years long. At about that time, Michael Mirra, the executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, came up with an idea: a program that could stabilize housing for families living in poverty while at the same time improve students’ academic outcomes.

A report on the experiment, called “Crossroads: The Intersection of Housing and Education Policy,” quotes him as saying:

“The data is pretty clear that student turnover is destructive to school outcomes for the children who come and go, and for their classmates who have to sit there and watch it happen. Children who grow up in deep poverty bring challenges to the schoolhouse door that the best-trained teacher in the fanciest classroom cannot address on their own. We start[ed] this experiment with a surmise that a housing authority is situated to be influential.”

According to the report, the program began with a pilot in which 50 homeless families with a child enrolled in kindergarten, first, or second grade at McCarver were given rental assistance for five years if the families agreed to:

  1. Keep their children enrolled at McCarver throughout the entire five-year plan.
  2. Enable their children’s academic success by ensuring the kids arrived at school on time, allocating time and space for schoolwork at home, reading to their children, and attending every parent-teacher conference and PTA meeting.
  3. Invest in their own education and employment prospects by taking advantage of services offered by nonprofit partners and the authority.
  4. Work with McCarver-based housing authority caseworkers to put together a success plan for the family and stay on track.
  5. Share their children’s academic data with the school so an independent evaluation of the pilot program could be conducted, and the program’s successes and failures could be weighed.

The first two years of the program have “showed promise,” according to the report, and the evaluation of the third year is underway. If it, too, is positive, the program may be expanded within McCarver as well as to other schools.

This experiment is one of the focuses of the “How Housing Matters Conference” in Washington D.C. Thursday (Oct. 16), a project of the National Building Museum in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Office of Policy Development & Research, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Housing Conference’s Center for Housing Policy.

The issue, of course, goes well beyond Tacoma. The Crossroads report notes that about  “1.3 million public school students were homeless during the 2012–13 school year, both an 8 percent increase from the previous year and a new record high.” It says:

Homelessness often leads to frequent student mobility, and when schools have high student turnover, neither students nor teachers can do their best.

Hypermobile students experience difficulties with classroom participation and academics, sometimes leading to repeating grades or failing to complete school. What’s worse, new students entering schools throughout the year can disrupt whole classrooms and lead to worse academic outcomes for all students, not just those who move. Urban Institute researchers point to growing evidence of the broad negative effects that such instability can have on child well-being.

For teachers, seeing their students come and go in a matter of weeks, not years, robs them of the chance to get to know the kids, evaluate their strengths and weaknesses over time, and adjust their lesson plans to help them improve in their areas of need.

It’s a steep uphill climb for all parties, to say the least.

In Tacoma, where students and educators had faced these problems for some time, enough became enough. Something had to change.

 

It sure does. And not just in Tacoma.

 

*How is a turnover rate of 179 percent possible?

Given a classroom with 20 seats available, students would come and go until 56 children have been in the class­— almost three times the original class size.