Affordable housing projects are often ground zero for the achievement gap that exists in the United States. Nearly one in four American children (22 percent as of 2013) live in poverty, with half of those children living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.
“Those children and families living in concentrated poverty have a harder row to hoe than those living in more mixed-income neighborhoods,” says Carol Naughton, president of Purpose Built Communities in Atlanta. Those areas tend to have higher crime rates, failing schools, substandard housing, and generally poor outcomes related to economics, academics, and health. For example, 86 percent of third-graders who live in concentrated poverty do not read at grade level. “That is one of the most important early indicators of whether a child is on the trajectory for a healthy, self-sufficient life,” says Naughton.
Developers have been understandably reluctant to step into the education space. The process requires a lot of additional community engagement above and beyond what the developer is already doing. Added to that is the challenge of financing programming amid a climate in which resources are already stretched thin. Panelists at ULI’s recent Housing Opportunity 2015 conference in Minneapolis shared some success stories and lessons learned on how developers can incorporate educational programming ranging from pre-kindergarten through high school and help get children on a path out of poverty.
The Bridge Project: Founded in 1991, the Bridge Project is a community outreach initiative of the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. The year-round project provides after-school and summer programming. Currently, it works with about 600 children and youth annually at four community centers serving five public housing neighborhoods in Denver.
The catalyst to launching the program was based on need. In the 1990s, Denver’s public housing projects had a high school dropout rate of 92 percent. The mission of the Bridge Project is to provide kids with education, as well as social and emotional skills support to help youth go on to college, vocational school, or the military, or whatever it is that will help them obtain self-sufficiency, says Molly Calhoun, clinical assistant professor at the University of Denver.
“We really focus on early literacy in the early years and move to more of the project-based STEM in the middle school years that helps kids get their hands dirty with friends,” says Calhoun. In high school, the focus is on what life is going to look like after high school, with interviewing, résumés, and helping students get internships to have basic job skills. The Bridge Project also brings its graduates back as volunteers to act as tutors and mentors.
Project for Pride in Living (PPL): PPL is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit housing developer, property manager, and service provider that currently has 1,200 units of affordable and supportive housing in the Twin Cities. PPL works with three different educational models. They have targeted after-school and summer programming. They operate two contract schools with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and they also are an authorizer for charter schools in Minneapolis.
At present, PPL serves about 245 kids in its after-school and summer programming, which is about half what it was a few years ago. PPL has intentionally taken a more focused approach to work closely with kids at complexes where a big achievement gap exists, such as those kids who are coming out of generations of homelessness and poverty. Youth are paired up one-on-one with a mentor who is committed to working with them all school year.
“Our kids have had a lot of chaos in their lives and don’t have a lot of trust. So that’s where it starts,” says Sarah Koschinska, director of self-sufficiency programs at PPL. The first step is forming the relationship, and from there working on the social and emotional skills, engagement in learning, and then literacy. “We know that only about 30 percent of our kids are reading at grade level. So we have a big task ahead of us, and we see ourselves as partners with the schools and we are augmenting and supporting what they do,” Koschinska adds.
PPL also runs two contract alternative high schools that currently serve about 50 students each. These are kids who are dropping out of high school. So, by offering very small class sizes and a tailored curriculum, PPL is able to engage kids and get them on the path to getting a diploma, notes Koschinska. This year, of its eligible seniors, the two schools had a 94 percent graduation rate compared with the 59 percent graduation rate for all Minneapolis Public Schools.
Settlement Housing Fund (SHF): The New York City–based nonprofit developer has built or renovated more than 8,700 units of housing in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan over its nearly 45-year tenure. Today, all of its new construction includes community amenities and/or programming with a focus on college and employment access, literacy, and life-skills training.
One of its key neighborhoods is Mount Eden in the Bronx, where SHF has 1,022 housing units and spends over $4 million on community programming each year at its New Settlement Apartments. The Bronx is the poorest borough in New York City, with 40 percent of Bronx children living in poverty and a high school graduation rate of 60 percent, although only 17 percent of that is actually considered college-ready, says Alexa Sewell, president of the Settlement Housing Fund. Specific to education, New Settlement provides summer day camps, after-school programs, supervised playgrounds, an on-site college access center, and a Student Success Center, as well as adult education classes.
In 2012, Settlement Housing Fund opened the New Settlement Community Campus in Mount Eden in partnership with the School Construction Authority. The 172,000-square-foot (16,000 sq m) community center has a library, an auditorium, a gym, a swimming pool, and a health clinic, among other amenities, as well as housing two new public schools—a grade school offering pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and a grade school offering sixth through 12th grade. “We really wanted this to be a state-of-the-art facility, and it is,” says Sewell.
The financing for the project was very challenging, and it would be difficult to replicate today. SHF was able to buy the original site for about $2 million. Due to appreciation and soaring land costs in New York City, the land is probably valued at upwards of $25 million today, Sewell notes. But New Settlement is an example of how a school can have a powerful impact on anchoring an entire neighborhood, she adds.
One of the common themes that each panelist touched on was the importance of forming partnerships across educational, community, and parent groups. For example, SHF has a very active Parent Action Committee at its New Settlement Apartments. The Bridge Program also partners with a number of community-based organizations, as well as the Denver Housing Authority. “We are really looking at how we bring systems together to provide more comprehensive programs,” says Calhoun.