A place for dreams and a better future

Housing authorities’ programs promote academic progress

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 29, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - Just after sunset, in an office suite across from a pair of housing developments, two dozen teenagers scribbled down answers during a trial run of an MCAS exam. In another room, an off-duty teacher read test questions to two learning-disabled teenagers. And in a computer lab nearby, about a dozen teens quietly clicked keyboards as they wrote college application essays.

For 25 years, teenagers living in publicly assisted housing have been using programs offered by the Cambridge Housing Authority to help its young tenants stay on track in school and head to college.

Now, the agency’s unusual role as academic adviser as well as landlord appears to be catching on across the state, with Patrick administration officials encouraging public housing managers to go beyond providing tenants with clean, affordable homes and begin promoting their children’s academic progress.

More than 200 housing authority and public school representatives turned out for a forum on the Cambridge program and another one in Brookline earlier this month at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Now some attendees are launching programs in their own cities.

Governor Deval Patrick, as part of his effort to reshape the delivery of public education, has been pushing for more partnerships between schools and other agencies that serve children and families. Last year, he assembled a “Children’s Readiness Cabinet’’ - which consists of the secretaries of education, health and human services, housing and economic development, public safety, and labor and workforce development - to create a more coordinated approach for delivering services to children and families.

The move is in recognition of a growing body of research indicating that schools alone cannot bolster the achievement of the state’s poorest students. Government agencies that interact with those children during nonschool hours also have to pitch in. Low-income students have among the lowest scores on state standardized tests and among the highest drop-out rates in the state.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said delivering extra help to students in the setting of their public housing developments could go a long way in closing their achievement gap. For instance, he said, tutoring programs could run at night or on weekends when students often get stumped on homework but schools are closed.

“We need to break down the geographic and time barriers of school,’’ Reville said.

The Cambridge and Brookline programs also have another goal: stopping the often generational cycle of poverty and dependence on public housing, for which there is an extensive waiting list, by preparing youngsters for a more prosperous livelihood.

“Most kids see their parents’ world as the way the world is,’’ said Amy Schectman, associate director at the Department of Housing and Community Development, noting that the average income level for a family living in public housing is roughly $12,000. “If everyone around you is that poor, how are you supposed to see another world and another way of living?’’

Cambridge’s WorkForce program was started to help remedy the city’s high dropout rate, primarily by setting up internships and other jobs for students who lived in public-assisted housing and offering them “life skill’’ lessons, such as how to balance a checkbook.

As the program succeeded in keeping more of these students in school, the housing authority gradually branched out into college preparatory work, creating tutoring sessions for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams and the Scholastic Assessment Tests, and assisting students with choosing colleges and filling out the applications. They even take the teens on tours of college campuses in and out of state.

“They get to see a world beyond public housing,’’ said Steven Swanger, the housing authority’s director of resident services. “It opens their eyes.’’

The program serves about 140 students a year in grades 8 through 12 who win admission on a first-come, first-served basis.

When 17-year-old Laura Jean first joined the program as an eighth-grader, she didn’t think college was within her reach. She didn’t have the best grades, she said, and knew tuition was pricey, but the staff convinced her otherwise. With their support, she passed the MCAS, took the SATs, and now is writing her college application essays.

The program, she said, has become a second home for her.

“I feel like I have more confidence,’’ said Jean, who was born in Haiti and moved here with her family when she was 9. “I feel more alive. . . . You feel like you are being watched by people who care about you.’’

Christopher Saheed, principal of Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, said the program has played a critical role in providing students with help that goes beyond the school day. The students, Saheed said, “need all the support we can muster for them.’’

The housing authority spends $500,000 a year to run the program, tapping funds from federal and city sources - an investment, Swanger said, that has been difficult to maintain during the economic slowdown but worthwhile.

The Brookline program, Steps to Success, started about 10 years ago and is run by the School Department, which works closely with the Housing Authority, area colleges, and community agencies. It serves about 300 students, starting in the fourth grade. Some tutoring and other services are based at the schools, while others are offered at public housing developments.

The program offers support for students as they move on to college.

One Thursday afternoon in Cambridge earlier this month, more than a dozen teenagers gathered around a table to talk about the status of their college applications. A few students said they had finished their essays, while others still had more work to do. A counselor asked how many felt stressed, and several raised their hands.

Charmine Bien-Aime, 18, said she had written three drafts of her essay and was starting a fourth. She is writing, in part, about her experience growing up in public housing.

Later, in an interview, she credited the program with helping her do well in school and keeping her focused on going to college. The program’s computer lab, she said, was particularly valuable during her ninth-grade year when she had no computer at home, while the staff has been a source of unwavering encouragement.

She said she also liked being surrounded by teenagers from a similar background - not having to worry that someone will judge her or draw false conclusions about her because she lives in public housing.

“There’s nothing wrong with living in public housing, but there is a negative energy’’ associated with it, Bien-Aime said.

“I think I have a lot to offer,’’ she said.