Tacoma's McCarver Elementary helps boost kids and parents out of poverty

Despite a high population of at-risk youth, there's one thing a pilot group of students at Tacoma's McCarver Elementary don't have to worry about: Where they'll sleep at night.
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McCarver Student of the Year with family

Despite a high population of at-risk youth, there's one thing a pilot group of students at Tacoma's McCarver Elementary don't have to worry about: Where they'll sleep at night.

David, a 47-year-old former meth addict, has been clean and sober for four years and is no longer homeless. His eight-year-old son, who was taken away by authorities when he was five, was restored to him a little over a year ago. Recently David completed a certificate in Heavy Equipment / Diesel Technology to boost his employment qualifications.

The certificate makes him proud. Some skills taught in the course weren’t new to him, since he had maintained diesel equipment in past jobs – when he was sober enough to show up at work. Now, he said in a phone interview, the certificate signals his victory over decades of darkness “when I was high and didn’t care about nothing. It means a lot to somebody like me, after being a drug addict my whole life. I’m so blessed with being in McCarver.”  

That’s his shorthand for the McCarver Elementary Special Housing Project in Tacoma. It's an innovative partnership led by the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) at McCarver School. The collaboration is helping David and others take steps toward securing the employment, housing and parenting skills they need to build better lives for themselves and their kids.

The partnership addresses the problem of family poverty more effectively than any of the partners could do alone. The five-year initiative started in the fall of 2011 after 18 months of planning, and it draws essential support from about 30 organizations in Tacoma and Pierce County. Public and private dollars from various sources, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pierce County, Building Changes, the Sequoia Foundation and the Tacoma Housing Authority. (Disclosure: Crosscut also receives support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

McCarver Elementary, located in the high-crime Hilltop area of Tacoma, serves the poorest children and the largest number of homeless children of any school in the district. Of its students, 92 percent qualify for federal lunch subsidies, and their cash-strapped families often move from place to place in search of scarce affordable housing and work.

McCarver's educational outcomes are far below par, partly because student turnover there is shockingly high. Not long ago, 175 percent of its children changed schools during the academic year. High levels of student mobility in a school seriously hinder student progress, and not just for kids who fall behind because they’re moving around. All students lose academic traction when teachers have to spend too much of their professional time trying to bring new arrivals up to speed. 

For a time, it looked as if most McCarver kids trapped in poverty were destined to eventually fail out of school and become the next generation of impoverished parents. Then the five-year McCarver initiative was launched, with the goal of stabilizing the lives of dozens of poor and homeless families and their school-age children.

Here’s how it works.

THA gives rental assistance in the form of housing vouchers to 50 families with children in the school’s kindergarten through second grade. In addition, parents are provided with educational opportunities and employment training. The children benefit from a more stable school experience that extends into extracurricular academic and enrichment activities at partner community organizations such as the city and county libraries, Boys & Girls Club, Children’s Museum, Peace Community Center and Tacoma Metro Parks. These programs continue through the summer, when (according to studies) the math and reading skills of students in low-income communities drop far behind those of more fortunate classmates.

The parents’ side of the bargain includes keeping their children at McCarver and participating in school life — in student events, PTA meetings, parent committees and teacher conferences. They must use the skills they develop in mandatory parenting classes sponsored by THA to foster their children’s academic progress. They agree to work closely with THA caseworkers on improving their own financial situation and job eligibility, and families gradually increase the amount they contribute toward their rent each year, paying just $25 per month at the start and covering 100 percent after year five.

Finally, parents allow data about their child’s growth at school and about their own progress toward financial stability to be shared, so that the project’s effectiveness can be assessed.

Now, in the initiative's second year, “several parents have completed job training…and moved into the fields they were studying,” says McCarver school principal Scott Rich. Student mobility is still high because McCarver is “in a very transient community,” Rich explains, “serving lots of kids from shelters and from transitional housing.” Still, the turnover rate has declined from 175 to 105-115 percent since the start of the initiative.

Families in the project are a more residentially stable cohort than other McCarver families, according to Michael Power, manager of educational programs at THA. Two families moved away the first year, but “both got good jobs, so we considered them graduates and economically self-sufficient,” he said. Only one family dropped out because of failures to comply with program requirements.

Parents in the group take trainings at employment centers for certification in fields such as construction, home health care assistance, and restaurant work, Power said. He added that Goodwill routinely offers free job training courses designed especially for individuals living in poverty, including classes in technology fields. Because trainees from impoverished backgrounds typically lack certain “soft skills,” Goodwill's students are required to take its week-long class in workplace behavior and dress, resume-writing and household financial planning. “People at Goodwill are very tied in with our community,” said Power. “They know the best ways of working with people coming out of poverty.”

At first, parents in the project merely went through the motions to fulfill the requirement of being involved in activities at McCarver. (This was “a piece we had to work through,” said Rich.) But halfway through the project's inaugural year, parents started taking pride in the school and ownership of their efforts. “A dad today is helping us with some grounds work around the school,” Rich said. “Another fixed our popcorn machine. They’re just plugging in, in ways we never saw before. Before this project we went decades without a parent group. Now we have a dynamic group with a leadership board, raising money. They sponsored a food drive for the local food bank. They’re our core parent group.” And the group is growing as parents within the project attract those outside the project cohort to their activities.

Students are doing better, too. Many in the program came from homeless shelters and other extremely disruptive situations, said Power. Now teachers are saying it’s easier to teach their classes. “Kids are able to focus and concentrate on their work. Incidents of acting out, of bad behavior, are down.” Students in the project have told Power how great it feels “to know where they’ll be from day to day, and to have a place for their stuff. One kid talked about the marvel of having a closet.”

Initial data collected by THA indicate that students in the project are outperforming not just McCarver’s other students, but also homeless and poor students in other district schools, Rich said (a report by an external evaluator is here). Strengthened by its program innovations and increased student stability, McCarver will soon bring the Primary Years International Baccalaureate Program to the school, which applies math, science and literacy learning across the curriculum to international themes and issues. Power hopes that “full implementation of IB [will make McCarver] a place people want to keep their kids instead of moving elsewhere and losing a chance at it.”

How does such a complex partnership of powerful independent players get underway? The prospect is particularly daunting in a society that valorizes individualism and autonomy and that celebrates entrepreneurial self-reliance as a kind of heroism.

In this broader context it seems remarkable that the McCarver initiative drew together Pierce County, Tacoma Public Schools, post-secondary institutions, job skills programs, public health agencies, housing associations besides THA, a variety of social service agencies, cultural organizations, other community alliances and funders both public and private. Entities doing very different work had to learn more about each other. For instance, THA caseworkers conscientiously developed their understanding of public school culture.

As with other large-scale collaborative efforts, the McCarver initiative was urged along by interested individuals who were friends and trusted each other. The Tacoma Housing Authority needed more than the ties they had woven with the community over the years, said Power. “We had worked with the County, Gates, Goodwill and all the different employment agencies. The shelters and the homeless agencies knew us. But it would be difficult to get the program off the ground if we didn’t have a good connection with a person in the school district.” Fortunately, Power and Rich had known each other for years.

Such ambitious collaborations must be long-term, too, not just one- or two-year commitments, which means that durable systems must be created to ensure survival and success. During the McCarver initiative's planning phase, even with pre-existing bonds between several participants, there were conflicts about how to build a sustainable structure. People were calling from all over the state hoping to enter the program, said Rich, but it was decided that the program would accept only families whose children currently attended McCarver.

Another stipulation arose from the need to have children in the five-year program long enough to see whether their achievement improved: Only children from kindergarten to second grade would be eligible. “Other families were asking, ‘Why not us?’” Rich said. The only way to move things forward was to “be very clear what our vision and guidelines were, and not let the other noise around us bring us down.”

The McCarver initiative coincides with a national trend in which diverse public and private forces are coming together to solve problems that none can solve alone, such as homelessness, intergenerational poverty, poor community health and low-quality schooling. “Collective Impact,” an article in last winter's issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, describes several ambitious long-term partnerships that unite the efforts of different sectors to solve urgent large-scale problems.

Here in Seattle, Building Changes (Disclosure: The author occasionally writes reports for Building Changes.) acts as the intermediary organization for disparate philanthropic, non-profit and governmental entities working closely together toward what would be a daunting mission for any single party: Ending homelessness in Washington state. The region's Road Map Project has marshaled a number of normally separate players in a united effort to improve student achievement "from cradle to college" in South Seattle and South King County.

Now the McCarver project is offering new evidence that collective action can be a potent driver of productive change. Federal officials and local leaders elsewhere in the U.S. are studying the project as a promising model for ways in which a wide variety of people and organizations can team up for extended periods to help seriously disadvantaged Americans across the country improve their lives.

For David and his son, it’s not just the housing, the skillful THA caseworkers, and the parenting classes made available by the project that strengthen the bond between them, but also the chance to be together regularly at school. “When I was high I wasn’t really doing what a dad should,” David said. “Now I attend all the little things. I know the school, and they know me. When I come in for something the kids say, ‘There’s DJ’s dad! There’s DJ’s dad!’”

For any little boy this would be a happy public recognition of his father. For this particular little boy, it’s what will help him grow into increasing feelings of love, safety and respect. All of which will help him to feel more capable when he grows up, of working and living like the worthy man one hopes he will become.

(In a THA video about the McCarver initiative you can learn more about the project and watch as children compare their new and former situations. A KBTC-TV “Northwest Now“ episode includes inspiring footage of participating parents and kids.)


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