Removing barriers to education

Housing Authority program worked at McCarver Elementary; now TCC will try it

Jazzlyn Knighten is doing the best she can, a 26-year-old single mother of three, taking 15 units a quarter at Tacoma Community College, pushing toward a degree that would let her work with the homeless. “I’ve been homeless and worked through that,” she said. “I want to help lead people to a better path.”

Knighten is like a lot of students attempting to turn their lives around, many of whom have financial issues that go well beyond books and tuition.

“We wondered what happens to low-income folks once out of high school,” said Michael Power, manager of educational programs at the Tacoma Housing Authority. “A scholarship isn’t enough. We realized housing was one of the barriers.”

Power, through THA, had monitored a program aimed at helping elementary school children. Using Tacoma’s McCarver Elementary as a five-year pilot program, THA helped 47 homeless families.

“The most important thing is that kids are stable in school, not bouncing around,” Power said. “There were requirements - families had to keep their kids enrolled at McCarver through fifth grade. And each year they paid another 20 percent of their rent.”

An outside evaluation called the McCarver program a profound success. School suspensions declined, parent participation increased, and students out-performed the Tacoma Public Schools average on tests.

School districts across the nation have visited to see the results.

Now, in a another pilot program, the housing authority is about to fund a program with TCC that will help 25-30 college students with their rent - as long as they stay in school full time.

“TCC completes the continuum to the other end of the cycle,” said Michael Mirra, the housing authority’s executive director. “We’re eager to see the results.”

Shema Hanebutte, TCC’s dean of counseling and advising, said the program will begin with a $150,000 budget and provide for students based on income and the number of people being housed.

“We’re building this airplane as we’re flying it,” she said of the school’s participation. “One person qualifying might get $400 a month to supplement their rent. A student with a family of six might get $700-$800.”

If the program clears all hurdles, it will likely begin in January.

Knighten is among those who will apply.

“A program like this would be a stepping stone to a better living situation, one far less stressful for my children and me,” she said. “I’ve come close to dropping out a few times mid-quarter because of things other than school. I came to realize if I give up on school, I give up on everything I want.”

As with the McCarver program, Hanebutte said, TCC will have active case management with students participating.

“Each student will be assigned an advisor or dedicated counselor, and there will be monthly check-ins,” Hanebutte said. “We know from experience housing is not the only problem facing low-income students.

“We want to be able to help them stay in school, and if that means helping them find transportation or food, we can put them in touch with those who can assist them.”

That’s the focus of the housing authority grant, Power said.

“We have learned just providing stable housing without a human point of contact who can help with small things, isn’t enough,” Power said. “These students need support.

“When struggling day to day, one of first things you do is stop going to class.

“That’s the last thing we want.”

Hanebutte said there will be no trouble finding enough applicants.

“We have a lot of students on campus having trouble with housing,” she said. “We’ll advertise on the college website, and we’ll have a far greater need than we can fill.”

The $150,000 one-year grant will help but won’t begin to cover the need. Broken down over 12 months, with 30 students per month, the average voucher would be for just more than $415 a month.

Still, for those like Knighten, any help might make the difference between staying in school and dropping out.

“This is our first step working with students after high school,” Power said. “We want our clients to succeed in school and beyond. That was goal at McCarver; it’s the goal at Tacoma Community College.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@thenewstribune.com