The home and school connection

Tacoma program uses housing to promote good parenting, self-sufficiency

When Mike and Shawna Allen first heard about the McCarver Program, the deal sounded too good to be true. The Allens were close to desperation at the time - crammed into a Tacoma homeless shelter with three small children, no money and no prospect of jobs.

The deal was this: The Tacoma Housing Authority would give them and 49 other homeless families practically free homes for a year - their rent would be $25 a month. Each year during the five-year program, the families’ contributions to their housing costs would increase by 20 percent, until they’d be paying the full price in the sixth year.

During that time, they’d have access to job training, parenting classes, child care, counselors to help them work through lingering drug and mental health issues, plus an array of other social and health services.

All the Allens and the other families had to do in return was enroll their kids at McCarver Elementary School, on Tacoma’s Hilltop, and keep them there through fifth grade.

Parents would need to be active in their children’s education, attending all activities and meetings. While their kids were in school, they’d need to do everything they could to find jobs that would make them self-sufficient within five years.

“It was a godsend,” said Mike Allen, 35, now close to completing training for a career as a machinist. “It was exactly what our little family needed.”

Michael Mirra, the head of THA and one of the originators of the McCarver concept, is convinced the program, now in its second year, will turn out to be an even better deal for McCarver Elementary and, eventually, the entire Hilltop neighborhood.

“We want transforming experiences,” Mirra said. “Success in school is an important part of the self-sufficiency and prosperity we seek for the families we serve.”

“We don’t want to have these kids as clients when they grow up.”

The unusual social experiment, which essentially uses public housing as leverage to force good parenting and self-sufficiency, is getting attention across the country as a possible prototype for fixing inner city schools and for getting families out of public housing and on their own.

Last summer, the McCarver Program drew a visit from Maurice Jones, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jones credited the program with “cutting-edge innovations in the way our housing and community developments are put to work.”

In April, the program won the VISION 2040 Award from the Puget Sound Regional Council of Governments, and public housing officials from Boston; Oakland and Fresno, Calif.; Atlanta; Akron, Ohio; Seattle; Portland; and King County have paid visits. The Wall Street Journal did a piece on the program this month.

“There are a lot of eyes on McCarver,” Mirra said. “They all want to know, How do you turn a school like this around and what can the role of a housing authority be?”

making the link

Mirra initially approached the Tacoma Public School District in 2010, with the bare bones of an idea that would link public housing and education.

“I knew we were positioned to be influential, but I didn’t know exactly how,” Mirra remembered. “I basically said, ‘We’re a housing authority. How can we help you?’ “

The possibilities so excited Michael Power, the district’s assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instructional assessment, that he quit his job with the school district and went to work for Mirra, as the Housing Authority’s education director and chief architect of the McCarver Program.

Despite the many benefits the program offers, its costs are modest, Mirra said.

“The main expense is the housing dollars,” he said, “and we would be spending them on somebody anyway.”

Many of the services and some of the costs are donated by more than two dozen other partners, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Goodwill, KBTC, MetroParks, Peace Lutheran and St. Leo churches and the Sequoia Foundation.

Among the assets available to families in the program are two full-time social caseworkers on loan from the housing authority.

Carlena Allen and Sharon Fletcher-Jackson share an office at the school, and their full-time job is guiding families in the program through various bureaucracies, solving problems and generally keeping parents and children on track.

Of the 50 families that originally began the program, 36 were headed by single women. Three had fathers only, and 11 were led by two parents.

When the program began, the caseworkers say, most parents were consumed by immediate problems: staying warm, finding food, finding a place to sleep.

“They felt like they didn’t have a way out,” Allen said. “They were in basic survival mode and unable to form a plan or take steps to recover. Part of our job is helping them get the mind-set that they can succeed.”

In some cases, substance abuse, mental health issues or outstanding criminal justice matters made things worse.

Many times, Fletcher-Jackson said, parents gradually became overwhelmed by relatively small problems that grew to paralyzing proportions.

Something as simple as unpaid traffic tickets, for example, led to suspended driver’s licenses, which kept parents from working or driving to job interviews.

Allen and Fletcher-Jackson say they’re able to use their knowledge of the system to lead parents out of the maze, working off tickets, getting help for mental health and substance abuse issues, arranging for GEDs and job training, and coming up with options for child care.

“The secret to this is cooperation among different groups that help in different ways,” Fletcher-Jackson said. “The whole community works together, and the stability helps kids thrive.”

notable progress

Four families of the 50 families have been removed from the program for not keeping up their end of the bargain.

“All they wanted was the housing,” Carlena Allen said. “Terminating them was the hardest thing, but we took extra, extra, extra steps and gave them chance after chance after chance.”

For the remaining families, the experiment is showing clear signs of improvement in the lives of students and parents, according to ongoing evaluations by Geo Education & Research, a firm hired by the housing authority.

“This year there have been fewer suspensions, children are coming to school more, parent engagement has increased significantly and children are starting to show academic and behavioral progress,” said a year-end report issued in 2012.

Reading scores for the kids in the program increased 22 percent, the evaluator found.

Parents’ situations are improving, too. At the beginning of the program seven of 61 parents were employed and average household income was $436 a month.

A year later, 20 of 56 parents held jobs and monthly incomes averaged $765.

Alex Torrella, 41, said he was so desperate when he applied for the McCarver Program that he burst into tears during the interview. A six-month prison term for a white-collar crime and a subsequent divorce had left him with sole responsibility for five children, ages 3 to 11.

He was working full time at a minimum-wage job, Torrella said, but he wasn’t making enough to hang onto his apartment.

“I was freaking out,” he said. “I walked in there like dad duck, all five kids with me.”

Torrella was accepted into the program and since has become a regular at the school, volunteering for odd jobs, chaperoning on field trips and attending PTA meetings.

He started his own handyman business and has a line on a job at an auto-body shop.

“You’ve got to hustle,” he said, “but good hustle, not bad hustle.”

“The McCarver Program is a life-saver and a game changer,” he said. “It’s given me a chance to prove I can be a member of productive society and not the dregs like a lot of people think of homeless people.”

Shawna Allen, 30, admits she originally had some doubts about sending her children to McCarver, even with all the benefits in the program.

She grew up in Tacoma and remembers the Hilltop as the center of gang fights, crack cocaine and racial violence. The story of a boy who had his ear cut off in a Hilltop attack planted an image in her mind that won’t go away, she said.

Allen’s grandmother, who raised her while her mother was in prison or on drugs, was horrified at the thought of her grandchildren going to school on the Hilltop, Allen said.

Now, though, she says, things are different - at McCarver and elsewhere on the Hilltop.

“I believe in McCarver and I believe in this program,” she said. “They really want us to succeed.”

Allen not only joined the PTA at McCarver - as all parents in the program were required to do - but she also served as secretary of the association’s board of directors. She volunteers at the school and enjoys it, she said. Because of a previous felony conviction, she said, she was not allowed to be part of the PTA at other schools.

“I love being allowed to volunteer there, to walk through the halls without a badge,” she said. “They know my history, but they say, ‘She changed her life. She’s a good mother. Yes, she can watch my kids.’

“That really fills my cup.”

- - -

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com