In Tacoma, Washington, and other U.S. cities, housing departments are collaborating with school districts to give low-income and homeless students a leg up.

A year and a half ago, Tanisha Barden of Tacoma, Washington, found herself going through a divorce and without a place to live. She and her three young children moved in with her mother, but it wasn’t a good situation. “Other family members were living there, too,” she says. “There were 13 people in a three-bedroom house.”

Barden had heard about a Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) initiative, the McCarver Elementary School Housing Assistance Program, that provides rental assistance to homeless families with children enrolled in kindergarten, first, or second grade at the school. Barden’s daughters were in kindergarten and second grade, so she signed up. (Her son was an infant at the time.)

Barden chose her apartment and began paying most of the rent. She currently pays 20 percent of the $1,200 due each month, and for the next three years she’ll add an additional 20 percent each year. To continue receiving the assistance, she’ll need to keep her children enrolled at McCarver for the duration. She must also participate actively in her kids’ education, such as by attending PTA meetings and reading to them, and invest in her own education and job training. A caseworker works with Barden to keep things on track.

McCarver Elementary is located in the low-income (but now gentrifying) Tacoma neighborhood of Hilltop. The school’s turnover rate has historically been extremely high due to homelessness. In 2006, the figure was 179 percent, meaning that each classroom desk had three different students assigned to it over the course of the school year. The situation has improved in the past decade, in part due to the THA program.

Barden says her older daughter loves the school, and her younger daughter is getting the speech therapy and writing help she needs. Barden recently received her high school diploma and is now looking to study to become a nurse. “The program is helping me achieve my goals,” she says. “If it didn’t exist, I’d probably still be living with my mom and wouldn’t have gotten my diploma.”

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