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Home is where learning begins

As Housing Virginia explored in its recent Housing and Schools Symposium, partnerships between the housing and education communities are essential for supporting children’s long-term success. Long before children enter a classroom, they develop cognitive capacity, pre-reading skills, and problem-solving experience they will build on for the rest of their lives. This learning starts at home. It also starts in childcare settings that, even at the least expensive, rival fair market rents. And once traditional schooling begins, the home environment influences whether students of all ages start the day ready to learn. The housing options available for most low-income families present nearly impossible trade-offs for their children’s education.

To access better-performing schools, parents may try to stretch their budgets with unaffordable housing in strong school districts. But that choice may lead to overworking, overcrowding, parental stress, and risks of eviction or foreclosure. If low-income parents opt instead to stay with housing they can afford, the options may only be substandard quality units that jeopardize kids’ health, or housing in areas of concentrated poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, or underperforming school districts.
None of these tradeoffs are easy, but they are a fact of life for most low-income families.
With a growing awareness of income inequality and the achievement gap, interest in combined housing and education solutions also seems to be on the rise. Housing Virginia’s symposium brought together a mixed audience of educators and housers, all interested in supporting children’s outcomes together. I had the privilege of sharing insights about the challenges and solutions during the luncheon keynote.
So what was the takeaway?
ADD to the partnership. Housing and schools are better together, but cannot do this work alone. The transportation, workforce development, and health communities, and possibly others, all have important roles to play.
SUPPORT each other. Keep the lines of communication and areas of work open across traditional silos. Housing developments, for example, may offer quality out-of-school-time programs in their community space. From the education side, schools can open dialogue with the local housing authority or affordable housing owners to work on ideas for reducing student churn in high turnover schools.
ADVOCATE for each other. Housers, advocate for your local schools and sufficient funding there. Educators, advocate for additional affordable housing funding, or for inclusive programs that make sure affordable housing is equitably distributed in the region.
PLAN together. School improvements cannot work in a vacuum, and housing improvements without quality schools will have a harder time attracting residents. Planning together can improve overall results.
In Virginia, Washington State, Massachusetts, and elsewhere, the housing and education communities are pairing up to improve outcomes. Working with education and anti-poverty partners, Massachusetts’s Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association won a $1.4 billion bond bill that will add affordable housing throughout the Commonwealth, as well as fund mixed-use developments with early childhood learning facilities and space for out-of-school-time programming. Inspired by a cross-agency partnership in Tacoma, Washington state legislators have considered legislation to prioritize local housing trust fund dollars to projects that involve  housing and school collaborations. And in Virginia, the housing and school communities have kicked off their partnership through the Housing and Schools Symposium. With a vision and the support of strong leaders, the picture for Virginia’s low-income families may change.
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