Ensuring homes for children key to better education

In the Legislature we continue to address the broad, structural concerns around funding of K-12 education that the state Supreme Court identified in its McCleary decision. While we all expect a fully funded school to be more successful than an underfunded one, other factors also influence a student’s ability to succeed.

One I believe is particularly important is whether a student has a home or not. Research has demonstrated clearly that homeless students are not nearly as successful at school. We know our state has a very serious problem of homelessness among its school students. Unfortunately we do not have enough data, especially for children not yet in elementary school.

We need this information to develop responsive policies and programs. That is why I am sponsoring House Bill 2610. It directs the Washington State Institute for Public Policy to collect and report on the data that policymakers need to address the systemic issues of poverty and education in our state.

Here in Tacoma, we have seen what can be accomplished when you have data necessary to create public policy solutions.

McCarver Elementary School has long been an important fixture of the Tacoma landscape. Recently, it has struggled with low academic outcomes. There are multiple causes, but perhaps the most significant are the challenges that its students face. They come from families with the region’s lowest incomes and highest rates of homelessness.

The resulting annual transience rate of McCarver students had ranged between 100 percent and 179 percent. Things got so bad that the state designated it as a failing school.

That drew the attention of the Tacoma Housing Authority. Two years ago, THA, the Tacoma School District and other partner organizations launched the McCarver Elementary School Housing Project in an attempt to reduce transience rates and the resulting learning difficulties. This program offers rental assistance and a wide range of supportive services to homeless McCarver families with children enrolled in kindergarten through second grade.

The program has helped to stabilize the school. McCarver’s turnover rate would have been 114 percent during the first year of the program without the intervention. After two years, McCarver’s turnover rate is down to 75 percent. This is still high, but it is lower than it has been in a long time.

Children at McCarver have increased their reading scores 22 percent; three times the progress of other children at the school or of other low-income children in the district. Discipline referrals have decreased, and attendance has improved greatly.

The positive impacts were not limited to students. The average income of parents participating in the program has doubled since its inception.

The progress is evident in the story of one family. The parents, along with their four elementary aged children, were homeless. At the time they joined the program, the parents were unemployed, depressed and constantly fearful what their situation was doing to their children. Once they became housed, the mother re-enrolled in community college. She will get her associate’s degree this summer, with plans to earn a bachelor’s degree. The father now works full time.

Most importantly, their children are thriving at McCarver. Their grades have improved markedly. They have excellent attendance records. Both parents are very involved in the children’s education. This family is on its way to long-term stability and success.

These results show the powerful impact we can have for homeless students across Washington state. But the McCarver project was only possible because THA and TPS had the data necessary to understand the need and design a program in response.

Children who are worried about where they will sleep the next night are not going to dedicate the time and energy necessary to succeed in academics or life. The legislation I am sponsoring is one important piece in a much larger conversation that our state must have around the intersection of homelessness and educational outcomes in Washington.

State Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, represents the 27th Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.