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Bringing School Home

6 min read

“America’s future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach, and how we live.”
– Jane Addams, 1860-1935

Because the cycle of poverty is generational, to break it we must adopt a generational approach, enlisting the whole family so that those who are older can help those who are younger aspire to, and achieve, more than their parents did. Home is a farm where we plant and grow people, and what we want to grow on that farm are happy, productive Americans. That takes education, and education, too, begins at home. Of a child’s first 18 years of life, the journey from infancy to young adulthood, only nine percent is spent in the classroom; the remaining 91 percent orbits around the home – and if what happens in school is undone by, undermined by, or not reinforced by what happens out of school, then school becomes a warehouse of underachievement.

For this reason, 18 months ago my non-profit (the Affordable Housing Institute) named Betsey Martens, CEO of Boulder (CO) Housing Partners (BHP) and a past president of NAHRO, as an AHI Fellow to pursue Bringing School Home (BSH), the formalized outgrowth of Boulder’s initiatives around public-housing-based school-child development. For the last 19 years, Boulder’s been developing, pioneering, expanding and now codifying BSH as a disruptive model that has produced dramatic and statistically conclusive results. Now we’re taking that model beyond Boulder to the whole country.

Why Bringing School Home is needed
Failure as an adult is seldom a surprise because the forward indicators abound. Dropping out of high school is more likely to lead to incarceration than smoking is to lead to lung cancer. Likewise, failing to achieve third-grade reading skills by the end of third grade is similarly likely to be the forward predictor of high school dropouts. The core reason is simple: up through third grade, a child is learning to read and learning to value reading; after third grade, the child is reading to learn and the public school curriculum does not effectively slow down to offer a recovery path for those with reading difficulties.

There’s a mountain of evidence that housing correlates with school performance. To begin with, in many cities like or larger than Boulder, many if not most of the public school children come from affordable or public housing. Public housing families are far more likely to have no parent who graduated from high school, scarcely a handful of books at home, no relative who attended or graduated from college, no role models within the family for whom brain work, not muscle work, is the source of income and success.

How Bringing School Home works
Bringing School Home is a ‘wraparound’ extended guided-tour from kindergarten to graduation, offered to children in selected public housing families at no cost to the family or child. When funds are sufficiently developed, BSH enrolls a new cohort of children (called ‘Dreamers’) at age six, then journeys with them for the next dozen years. With the support of the Dreamer’s family, each Dreamer class is paired with a BSH adult (uncle or auntie, tio or tia), and is promised a $10,000 donor-funded college scholarship when he or she gets there. Uncles/aunties form a deep personal commitment to their Dreamers, and in BHP’s experience nearly all of them stay with their Dreamer through cap-and-gown.

BSH operates in a designated space within each public housing property: the earliest began humbly in laundry rooms, evolving upward to a converted apartment, a portion of the community room, or in modern BSH sites like a dedicated BSH classroom-cum-community center. BSH fits seamlessly like a glove around the school experience, and by now the Boulder public schools, which were originally standoffish, are now strong BSH supporters, allowing the BSH uncles/aunties into the school during the day and into the classroom when appropriate.

That warm glove around the child extends to the public housing property, procedures and staff. BHP writes BSH-family leases so they end only in the summer, never in the school year. Boulder Housing’s on-site staff know who all the Dreamers are, and when they see a BSH child, say on a maintenance or service call inside the apartment, they will ask, “How was school?” “What did you learn today?” Likewise, the BSH experience reverberates within the public housing family; when an older child or youth enrolls in BSH, he or she becomes a role model for siblings, for the parents (inspiring them to read), and for friends and friends’ parents. All this is made stronger by the place-based immediacy and familiarity of the BSH classroom-clubhouse.

Where it’s going
Bringing School Home’s success is proven and its momentum is building:

  • The program currently graduates over 90 percent of its enrollees, compared with 65 percent among Boulder public housing peers not enrolled in BSH, dramatically better than other poverty disruption models.
  • The Urban Institute has joined BSH as a research partner and is pursuing funding to document not only that BSH works, but how it works.
  • More than 30 public housing authorities around the country have expressed interest in establishing the BSH ‘franchise kit’ in their properties.
  • HUD has approved Boulder Housing Partners’ referral process to Boulder family public housing for families with a child under six who will enroll the child in BSH.
  • We are working with BSH’s 15-member Fellowship Advisory Council to distill the BSH experience into an open-source ‘franchise kit,’ with the goal of enlisting three to four test sites around the country in 2017.
  • BSH has just been awarded a significant two-year grant to build out its proof of theory and take the program to scale.

Perhaps most importantly, after 31 years at Boulder Housing Partners, the last 20 of them as its CEO, Betsey Martens decided her passion and commitment for BSH is so great that she’s leaving to launch BSH’s further expansion.

If impending HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson wants to travel the country seeing innovative ways to make housing the platform for education, let him come to Boulder.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.