Thursday, January 24, 2013

Housing Stability and Academic Success

I want to tell you about a local project with which I am enormously impressed.  I have played no part in it, but have come to admire the project, the public body that initiated it, and the very impressive initial evaluation findings.  I see organizations like the sponsor of this project as very desirable places where Community Psychologists can make meaningful contributions as employees or consultants.

Let’s start with the organization’s Mission, Vision, and Values statements, adopted in 2008: Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) “provides high quality, stable and sustainable housing and supportive services to people in need.  It does this in ways that help them to become self-sufficient, that strengthen communities and that use its public and private resources efficiently and effectively.”  THA envisions “a future where everyone has an affordable, safe and nurturing home, where neighbourhoods are attractive places to live, work, attend school, shop and play, and where everyone has the support they need to succeed as parents, students, wage earners and neighbours.”  Stated Values include Service, Integrity, Stewardship, Communication, Diversity of Staff, Collegial Support and Respect, and Excellence.  THA wants its services to be temporary, transformational, and to help families prosper.

Please see for a comprehensive view of all THA activities and services.

In its commitment to help students who live in its public housing succeed, THA initiated a Special Housing Program within the service area of McCarver Elementary School, a school with an extraordinarily high student turnover rate in a neighbourhood generating many social indicators of distress.  Many housing authorities provide student resident with homework help and mentors, but THA realized that neither students nor the school could succeed when burdened by such high turnover rates.  In 2011, the year before this project started, 97 % of McCarver students changed during the school year.  A few years before, turnover rate had reached 179%.  THA administrators recognized that children whose lives are disrupted by changing schools so often have a lot of difficulty learning, and their teachers have great difficulty teaching effectively with so many students coming and going.

THA administrators realized that stabilizing family housing would be a key to both student and family success.  Michael Mirra, Executive Director, sees THA’s role as more than landlords, property managers, and real estate developers.  He comments that THA gives vouchers in order to have families remain in place, rather than to escape to other neighbourhoods and then be replaced by other families facing the same challenges.  He also points out that desirable schools draw families and enhance their neighborhoods.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, THA began providing up to 5 years of rental support to up to 50 previously homeless families with children enrolled in kindergarten, 1st of 2nd grade.  These students constitute about 20% of the school’s student body.  During the first year, parents were required to pay rent of $25 a month.  Each subsequent year, they pay an increasing 20% of the rent per year, until they are able to pay 100% after the fifth year.

In return parents had to agree to five conditions:
1. Keep their child enrolled at McCarver;
2. Be very involved with school activities and their child’s education;
3. Work on their own career and financial growth;
4. Work with THA staff to accomplish these goals; and
5. Share data on their child’s progress in school and the parents’ economic development.

To help parents support their child’s education and also become financially independent, THA:
1. Assigned two full time case workers to provide the families with support and resources;
2. Involved over 30 community partners who provide families with services to combat chemical dependence and family violence; and provide parent skills classes, workforce training, and adult education.
3. Sponsors monthly parenting meetings.
4. Requires parents to participate in PTA and other school events.
5. Makes it possible for the children in the program to attend spring break and summer camps, to extend their learning opportunities.

This project is funded primarily with THA ordinary income.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting a portion of salary for THA’s Manager of Educational Programs and is funding a comprehensive outside evaluation of results.


Tacoma School District has embraced this initiative in several ways.  McCarver teachers report that they are able to teach more effectively because they have the same students every day, get to know them and meet their learning needs.  The staff has supported unanimously a School District decision to implement the Primary Years International Baccalaureate, a school-wide program that will enrich education for all McCarver students.  In addition to that financial investment, the School District has invested in additional staff development opportunities.  It is collaborating with THA at other schools having significant enrolment of students from families housed by THA.

GEO Education and Research is conducting the project evaluation.  While cautioning that no firm conclusions may be drawn yet, the trends are moving in desired directions:

“A long term analysis of multiple years will be required to determine if desired outcomes are being achieved and sustained.  Program planners and managers did not expect to see measurable, much less significant, changes in student performance in the first year of implementation.  Given the traumas and challenges experienced by the students and their parents, rapid change seemed unlikely.  Yet, our analysis has shown that in one primary indicator of student success – reading – Program students (especially those in grades K-2) made substantial strides during the first year of the program.  In addition, attendance was positively and significantly correlated with these increases in DIBELS (reading) scores.  There was also a decline in the overall mobility rate a McCarver, from 107% in 2010-2011 to 96.6% in 2011-2012.  Program student mobility was 4.5% while the mobility rate of the rest of the student population was 114%.  Mobility rates are highly variable year to year, but this indicator is moving in the right direction.

For more information about this program, contact Michael Power, PhD.  (in Educational Psychology) Manager of Educational Programs: 253.207.4404


On January 2, 2013, I met with Michael Mirra, Executive Director; Nancy Vignec, Director of Community Services; and Michael Power, Manager of Educational Programs to learn more about the McCarver Elementary Special Housing Program and to ask what of the Community Psychology Competencies might be valued by a public housing authority.  Each was very helpful and I thank them for meeting with me.  Throughout the discussion, they returned again and again to the THA Board’s foundational Vision, Mission, and Values statements.  They clarified how this project springs from an increasingly clear understanding that safe, affordable, and stable housing under-girds family, student, and school system success.  They reported that, in addition to the student outcomes described above, participating parents’ earned income had increased 35% during the current evaluation period and parents are much more engaged in both student success at school and their own improvement plans.

The THA program began when there were no models to follow, and they have had to feel their way along as it developed.  One of their early steps was to hire an Education Manager who had been a key administrator in Tacoma School District; thereby strengthening the linkages between housing authority and school district.  Now, seven other housing authorities across the nation have added Education Managers.  A number of housing authorities from around the nation have visited to learn about the program, as has an Assistant Secretary of HUD.  It is pretty clear that this type of project will spread to other housing authorities.

THA authorities see THA as community developers; in addition to their traditional roles as landlords, property managers, and property developers.  They point out that many people choose where to live based upon the quality of the neighborhood’s schools, when they have choice.  People who have resources will tend to migrate away from neighborhoods with poor schools, leaving behind those who lack resources and thereby contributing to neighborhood decline.  That is why merely providing housing vouchers alone cannot generate neighborhood improvement.  THA hopes that stabilizing McCarver Elementary and introducing a strong curriculum taught by faculty with high expectations will contribute to stabilization of the Hilltop Neighborhood of Tacoma, by enabling families to remain in housing and by drawing new families to a desirable neighborhood.

I asked Michael Power to look over the CP Competencies list and tell me whether these skill sets might be desirable to public housing authorities around the nation.  He answered very positively.  I suggest that Community Psychologists might want to get acquainted with their local housing authorities and with other community development organizations.

Al Ratcliffe, Ph.D
Community Psychologist
Tacoma, Washington, USA


  1. In 2011 the turnover rate at McCarver was 107%. In 2012, after the first year of the program, the rate was 97%.
    Al Ratcliffe

  2. Thank you for the data Allen! It really confirms the program efficacy. Thanks!

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