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Investing in Education: Part II

Photograph of seven students and an adult holding a Steps to Success program banner on a hike in the mountains. The Steps to Success program in Brookline, Massachusetts, has served more than 3,800 public housing students since its inception in 2001. Credit: Brookline Housing Authority

Throughout the country, public housing agencies (PHAs), often partnering with a range of public, private, and nonprofit entities, are offering their residents innovative, housing-based educational initiatives to address various areas of concern. The May 15 issue of The Edge featured programs supported by two large PHAs in Denver and Seattle. This issue looks at two long-running projects based out of smaller PHAs: the Steps to Success program run by a nonprofit in partnership with the Brookline Housing Authority in Massachusetts and the Learning Centers initiative at the Norwalk Housing Authority in Connecticut. Both programs report significant results, although they employ different methodologies; whereas Norwalk’s educational learning centers constitute an organizational subset of the housing agency, Brookline’s Steps to Success is a nonprofit entity characterized by a three-pronged partnership that includes the housing agency. Both programs rely on partnerships with stakeholders such as the public schools and on the engagement of parents.


Learning Centers Provide Basis for Academic Programming in Norwalk, Connecticut

The Norwalk Housing Authority (NHA) began offering educational programming in 1997 in response to the poor academic achievement of its resident students. NHA bases its educational activities out of five learning centers located on its residential properties. The activities offered at the learning centers are divided into two basic categories: academics, such as homework help, tutoring, and skill building in literacy and math, and enrichment. All programs undertaken through the learning centers emphasize parental involvement, including programming to empower and encourage parents to take a more active role in their students’ academic careers. One of the many initiatives that these learning centers support is the Bridge to College and Career (BTCC) program, which assists students in grades 6 to 12.

The BTCC program prepares youth for college or entry into a living-wage career. BTCC participants in middle school attend a dedicated afterschool program five times a week, and high school students are invited to drop in as needed for support and attend monthly workshops. In addition to academic support, participants in this program receive skills training for the transition to high school, college, or career, access to speaking events, financial literacy instruction, college preparatory activities, and more. All graduates of the program are eligible for scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $17,000 from the Norwalk Housing Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1998 by NHA, which has distributed more than $1.5 million to 202 students.

Photograph of a medical student using a pipette under a fume hood.Bridge to College and Career graduate Tina Spencer, now a second year medical student at the University of Connecticut Medical School, received both undergraduate and medical school scholarships from the Norwalk Housing Foundation. Credit: Norwalk Housing Authority

Because NHA considers promoting educational success and self-sufficiency a core part of its mission, its educational initiatives derive most of their oversight and execution from the housing agency itself, with funding from its operating budget and capital improvements fund. However, Norwalk Public Schools and the Norwalk Housing Foundation are primary partners in NHA’s ongoing effort to advance the educational achievement of resident youth.

The Brookline Housing Authority’s Steps to Success Program

The Steps to Success (STS) program began as a partnership between the Brookline Housing Authority (BHA) and the Public Schools of Brookline with seed money provided by the Brookline Community Foundation and a federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant. Established in 2001, the program is open to Brookline public housing residents from fourth grade through college and provides a range of educational enrichment activities in and out of school. In addition to afterschool and summer programming, STS provides tutoring, job training, summer internships, academic advising, and exposure to higher education. In 2009, the College Success Initiative was added to the STS roster of services to advise and assist STS graduates who had moved on to college. In 2010, a group of volunteers formalized its commitment to the program and established Steps to Success, Inc., as a nonprofit that provides funding for the afterschool and summer programming and underwrites the College Success Initiative.

Steps to Success has seen significant positive results for the 3,800 Brookline students it has served since its inception. In 2015, there were 283 students enrolled in the Steps to Success program, and of those participants who were high school seniors, 100 percent were accepted into college. Among students still in grade school, 87 percent moved to the next grade level on time. Most 2014 enrollees returned for a second year, resulting in a retention rate of 82 percent. Judy Katz, commissioner of BHA and chair of the Steps to Success board of directors, attributes the program’s efficacy to its success in recruiting parents and its close partnership with the public schools and BHA. Katz reports that Steps to Success administrators are interested in expanding the program, first to students whose families receive housing subsidies through the Housing Choice Voucher program and eventually to all low-income students in Brookline.

Improving Life Outcomes

Public housing agencies are well positioned to help resident students achieve academic success and have a vested interest in doing so — educational attainment is a primary means of improving lifetime earnings prospects. The four PHAs discussed in this two-part feature provide a snapshot of the work taking place nationwide, demonstrating the potential of educational programs based in public housing developments to boost high school graduation and college attendance rates. Although the initiatives within PHAs take various forms based on several factors, including the nature of available resources, the needs of resident children and parents, and the PHAs’ relationships with schools and nonprofits, all are striving to improve life outcomes for low-income students.

Interview with Candace Mayer, deputy director, Norwalk Housing Authority. 23 March 2017; Joint interview with Phillip Mayfield, consultant, and Judy Katz, commissioner, Brookline Housing Authority, 15 March 2017.

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Norwalk Housing Authority. n.d. “Bridge to College and Career Program.” Accessed 13 March 2017; Interview with Candace Mayer, deputy director, Norwalk Housing Authority, 23 March 2017; Norwalk Housing Authority. n.d. “NHF: Scholarships.” Accessed 13 March 2017.

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Joint Interview with Phillip Mayfield, consultant, and Judy Katz, commissioner, Brookline Housing Authority, 15 March 2017; Council of Large Public Housing Authorities. 2012. “Bringing Education Home: Housing Authorities and Learning Initiatives.” Accessed 13 March 2017.

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Interview with Candace Mayer, deputy director, Norwalk Housing Authority. 23 March 2017; Norwalk Housing Authority. n.d. “Bridge to College and Career Program.” Accessed 13 March 2017.

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Steps to Success. n.d. “College Success Initiative.” Accessed 14 March 2017; Joint Interview with Phillip Mayfield, consultant, and Judy Katz, commissioner, Brookline Housing Authority. 15 March 2017; Steps to Success. n.d. “About Us.” Accessed 14 March 2017.

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Joint Interview with Phillip Mayfield, consultant, and Judy Katz, 15 March 2017; Documents from Phillip Mayfield. 10 March 2017; Steps to Success. n.d. “Our Impact.” Accessed 14 March 2017.

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Joint Interview with Phillip Mayfield, consultant, and Judy Katz, 15 March 2017; Documents from Phillip Mayfield. 10 March 2017.

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