Coquille district reinvents itself with early childhood education

Coquille district reinvents itself with early childhood education

Sharon Nelson, principal of Lincoln School of Early Learning, and Tim Sweeney, superintendent of Coquille School District, chat with preschoolers during lunch.

Five years ago, Coquille School District leaders agonized over closing their fifth and last elementary school after a decades-long enrollment decline.

But today that school is thriving as the Lincoln School of Early Learning, bursting with preschool, kindergarten and other early childhood education programs and adding a building to make room for even more children.

Superintendent Tim Sweeney and his staff still marvel over how they managed to pull this off.

“You would be stunned with what you are able to do when you start  taking the steps,” says Sweeney. “This can happen anywhere.”

Indeed, the Children’s Institute through its Early Works program has helped two unlikely elementary schools – Earl Boyles in East Portland and Yoncalla in the hills south of Eugene — launch robust early learning programs over the last five years. Lincoln Elementary, like Earl Boyles and Yoncalla, is in a district that enrolls a high proportion of children from low-income families. Yet all of these schools found innovative ways to offer preschool and other services by teaming up with other organizations, both public and private, that serve young children.

They all see that by investing early in education, they can reduce future costs that come with remediation and school failure. Early education prepares children for kindergarten, improves their school success and can prevent the achievement gap that so often leaves poor kids behind.

Teacher Angela Dixon’s preschooler runs off some energy with relay races during recess.

The Lincoln Early Learning Center today is home to four full-day kindergartens serving a total 60 students, two-half day preschool classes collectively enrolling 52 three- and four-year olds, a Head Start class with 30 children and an Early Head Start class for 15 two- and three-year-olds. Some kindergartners are completing their third year at Lincoln.

The three-year olds in Lincoln’s two preschool classes take Friday’s off while the four-year olds spend time in the classroom and on the playground with the kindergartners, a practice that allows them to easily advance and adjust to kindergarten.

Angela Dixon, who is completing her second year teaching the preschool classes, says children are learning their numbers, letters, how to write their names and social skills.

“I love it,” says Dixon, who is earning a college degree in early learning. “The rewards are watching them grow. I’m seeing amazing growth.”

New Child Development Center

One room that has been used by the school board for its meetings has been converted into a child development center that opened in April to provide structured child care to two- and three-year olds. The center introduces children to books and basic learning and social skills. Holli Henthorn, the coordinator, sometimes has her husband, a local policeman, come in uniform to read to the children.

The center, which charges parents $3.60 an hour, is open from 7:15 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. so children from the preschool and primary classes can come before and after school while their parents work.

“It is a great opportunity not only for me, but for the community,” says Henthorn, who grew up in Coquille. “There is a need for it in our little community. People need options, and there isn’t much here for them.”

Coquille district reinvents itself with early childhood education

Sharon Nelson, principal of Lincoln School of Early Learning, and Tim Sweeney, superintendent of Coquille School District, survey the foundation for a new $600,000 building addition that will become a child development center to serve about 60 children.

Outside, the foundation is taking shape for a $600,000 addition that will expand the child development center to accommodate about 60 children. The money was raised locally through donations and represents the first new school building in Coquille since 1979.

“It gives people hope,” says Sharon Nelson, principal of the Lincoln School of Early Learning. Nelson attended first grade in Lincoln the year it opened in 1961. She formerly taught health and physical education at the high school and was later principal there. Henthorn was one of her students.

While the district is trying to give its young children a solid early start in learning, it also wants to give them social and emotional support, Nelson says.

“We are trying to look at the whole child,” she says. “It is not just academics we are focused on.”

Nearly all of Coquille’s students are economically disadvantaged. About 60 are homeless and in temporary housing. Nearly half qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. The school board has chosen to provide three free meals a day — lunch, breakfast and dinner — to every student in the district five days a week.

Teen sparks an idea

Sweeney says the germ of Coquille’s leap into early childhood education was planted one morning in 2012 when a high school junior girl came to him with a problem. Her mom had just been promoted from night to day manager at a local fast-food restaurant. But because of prohibitive childcare costs, the promotion would require the daughter to watch her 3-year-old sister and complete her senior year of high school at home by taking online courses. The teen wanted to complete her senior year at school.

The girl’s request sparked an idea that prompted Sweeney to assemble his administrative team and pose some questions about their financially-ailing Lincoln Elementary.

“What if we re-imagined this school?” he asked. “What if we did full day kindergarten here? What if we did preschool here?”

Coquille district reinvents itself with early childhood education

Sharon Nelson, principal of Lincoln School of Early Learning, and Tim Sweeney, superintendent of Coquille School District, have helped turn an elementary school that Nelson attended as a child into the Lincoln School of Early Learning.

Over the next year, though not in time for the high school senior, the district would do that and more. It invited Head Start and Early Head Start to set up their operations in the school. It invited the South Coast Education Service District to move its early intervention program for young children with special needs into Lincoln. It expanded kindergarten from half- to full-day and hired a teacher for two half-day preschool classes. To pay for the teacher, the Coquille High School principal agreed to give up his counselor.

The principal said he understood, recalls Sweeney, “if you can close the achievement gap early enough, you are going to send me a different kind of high school student.”


By fall of 2013, Lincoln Elementary was again full of children, and Sweeney was delivered from his dread of being “the person closing the last elementary school in the district.”

Sweeney previously worked three years in southwest Oregon as Superintendent of Butte Falls School District and principal of its two schools. In 2010, he arrived at Coquille to oversee its three schools: a high school, a middle school oddly arranged with grades three through eight, and Lincoln Elementary, with grades Kindergarten through two.

Coquille, the Coos County seat named after a Native American tribe, spreads above a valley northeast of Coos Bay on the bank of the Coquille River in the foothills of the Coast Range. As statewide, 87 percent of its 3,850 residents are white. The 15 percent living in poverty is slightly less than the 17 percent statewide, but the median annual household income in Coquille falls significantly below the Oregon average, $32,500 compared to $51,200. As statewide, 88 percent of Coquille’s 2,060 adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed high school, but only about 10 percent of them have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s when the Coquille area had four lumber mills and lots of dairy farms serving the nearby Bandon cheese factory, the school district enrolled 2,200 students. Over the next three decades, three mills, the cheese factory and most of the dairies closed and enrollment dropped to about 850 by the time Sweeney arrived in 2010.

Enrollment grows

Coquille district reinvents itself with early childhood education

Angela Dixon leads her preschoolers as they count to 100 while the numbers flash on a video screen.

But after the district opened Lincoln Elementary as an early learning center, parents who had been schooling their children at home, online or elsewhere, began sending their children back. They liked the new school organization that put children in grade one through six in one school and those in seven through 12 in the middle and high school, and they loved the opportunity to send their children to preschool and all-day kindergarten. Coquille’s enrollment quickly climbed to 1,050. And with those additional children came funding to the tune of $11,764 per student.

Jessica Tibbitt, 23, recently moved to Coquille from Virginia and was pleasantly surprised to learn a public preschool was available within walking distance of her home. She says her son, Harry Walker Jr., 5, has already made progress in learning letters and numbers. “He knows things,” she says.

On one May morning, Tibbitt brings Harry’s pet rabbit to Dixon’s class for show and tell. When she arrives, the students are acting out letter sounds to the beat of a video shined on a big screen. They run in place and shout R, pretend like they are surfing as they make the S sound, and hush for the Q sound of quiet. Then the students sit, and with Tibbitt at his side, Harry takes center stage to show off his rabbit, which he holds in his lap.

“Do you pet him?” asks one student.

“I pet him every day,” says Harry.

Coquille’s first class of preschoolers is now in third grade, the earliest grade at which the state tests for reading, math and science. So Coquille will soon have its first indication of whether the preschool is making a difference in academic achievement.

Kindergarten and primary grade teachers say they are seeing better adjusted and academically-prepared students posing fewer “classroom management issues,” Nelson says.

“They say, ‘Wow, what a great group of kids you sent us,’” Nelson says “We’ve heard that twice.”

Coquille district reinvents itself with early childhood education

Holli Henthorn, coordinator, and assistant Michelle Etienne talk during a snack break in the child development center, which used to be the meeting room for the Coquille Board of Education.

The district is now using some of the state money it gets from Measure 98, the High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness Act of 2016, to train high school seniors to assist Dixon in her preschool classes, for which she now has one assistant. The district also plans to invite senior citizen volunteers to help. The Lincoln Early Learning Center is evolving into a community center that will bustle with people from ages 2 to 80, Sweeney says.

The district’s venture into early childhood education has been challenging, and it would be much easier to remain a K-12 district, the superintendent says. But the change has brought new energy and hope to a district after a long decline.

The early learning program “keeps us engaged,” he says. “It keeps you coming to work every day. It keeps parents engaged….It has allowed us to be so much more creative.”

Listen to our interview with Superintendent Tim Sweeney

Housing Crisis Affects Earl Boyles Community

Preschool teacher Andreina Velasco knows at least several of her students at Earl Boyles Elementary are from homeless families who have moved in with friends or relatives while they struggle to find a home. Sometimes she sees the stress of unstable housing reflected in children’s restlessness and lack of focus in class.

Homelessness has grown worse over the last three years at Earl Boyles and throughout East Portland and Multnomah County as the area population grows, gentrification pushes to the metro outskirts, rents rise and available and affordable housing grows scarce.

Housing Crisis Affects Earl Boyles CommunityChildren thrive on routine and consistency, Velasco says, but it is hard for parents without stable housing to provide that. “They see their parents having a difficult time,” she says. “It definitely has an emotional impact on them.”

The scope of the housing crisis for Earl Boyles’ families became apparent last year after the Children’s Institute surveyed 83 of them and found three in four had seen a rent increase over the previous year averaging $95 a month. A third of families were relying on help, mostly from relatives and friends, to pay rent.

Children’s Institute is concerned housing disruptions can create emotional, attendance and behavioral problems for children and have a negative impact on early learning and school success. Engaged with Earl Boyles through it’s Early Works initiative, a partnership that involves more than a dozen Southeast Portland organizations, the institute this fall teamed up with additional agencies to offer a housing assistance program. Home Forward, the housing authority for Multnomah County, pledged $175,000 for each of two years to provide short term rental assistance to Earl Boyles families.

But even with that money, the severity of rent increases and scarcity of affordable housing has made it difficult to put families in permanent housing, says Rachel Langford, education and youth initiatives director for Home Forward.

“We are just not serving as many families as we hoped to be serving at this point,” she says.

As of late February, the housing program launched last fall had helped three families with short term rent assistance, helped another half-dozen families avoid eviction, and was responding to six homeless families seeking housing and to 10 referrals for other families needing help, says Langford. The program is funded to serve about 50 families per year, and its leaders believe they are not reaching many families in need.

The program is based at Earl Boyles and run by a director working through Portland’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, which is on contract with Multnomah County. Those receiving housing help must live within the Earl Boyles enrollment area and have gross annual incomes below 50 percent of the area median income, $36,650 for a family of four.

A temporary fix

The programs’ short term rent assistance can help families get settled into apartments. But some families “are reluctant to sign on to short term relief with our assistance if they can’t sustain it” after the subsidy ends, Langford says.

Finding affordable housing also has become more difficult because the tight market allows landlords more options to raise rent, remodel and turn to higher-income renters. Larger families, with three or more children, are finding that landlords will not accept them for two-bedroom apartments as they may have in the past when they had higher vacancy rates, says Marina Merrill, senior research and policy advisor for Children’s Institute. Three bedroom apartments are uncommon, and even with rent assistance, largely out of reach for low-income families, she says.

Given the complexities of placing homeless families in permanent housing in this rental market, the Earl Boyles housing program has started doing more eviction prevention to help families who have housing keep it. As rents climb, many families are spending a growing share of their income on rent. The non-profit Community Alliance of Tenants (CAT) has seen renters in East Portland pay a majority of their income on housing for fear of being left homeless, says Christina Palacios, senior organizer. Residents are financially squeezed when their rents climb above 30 percent of their income, yet the Portland Housing Advisory Commission reported that 28 percent of households in Portland in 2016 were paying half or more of their income on rent, Langford says. Families overburdened by rent often rely on food banks for groceries or have their children bring home leftovers from school lunch programs, Palacios says. Some families double up and share an apartment, but that’s dangerous because it gives landlords grounds for eviction, she says.

Housing has always posed a challenge for low-income families, but it has become so rare and expensive that the City of Portland declared lack of affordable housing an emergency more than a year ago. Rents in the metro area have climbed by 63 percent over the last decade while salaries increased by only 39 percent, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In East Portland, rents climbed 13 percent in 2016 alone. Available housing, the national coalition reports, falls short by 36,000 units in Multnomah County and by 63,000 for the Portland metro area for families with incomes below 50 percent of median family income.

A federal count in 2015 found about 3,800 people living on the streets, shelters or temporary shelters in Multnomah County and another 12,000 jammed into homes with other families.

Forces at work

A growing population and gentrification has been pushing low-income residents to the outskirts of the metro area for more than a decade. A decline in federal housing funding, a state ban on rent control, few regulations on no-cause evictions and unfair renting practices have all contributed to the housing crisis, say housing authorities.

“We’re seeing some landlords evict whole buildings and flip (remodel) them,” says Ruth Adkins, policy director for the Oregon Opportunity Network, a nonprofit association of 150 affordable housing and community development groups. “People in the entire building are out on the street in short order.”

CAT is providing classes for tenants to help them know their rights and lobby government officials for more protection. The agency last summer provided about 20 Earl Boyles parents with lessons on renters’ rights, fair housing, lobbying and the eviction process, Palacios says. Further, some middle class residents are beginning to feel the squeeze of rising rents and are pushing for action, says Adkins.

Tenant advocacy efforts are paying off. Portland will spend $258 million to build and preserve hundreds of affordable apartments for its poorest residents after a large majority of voters last November approved a bond levy for the initiative. In December, the Portland City Council unanimously approved an inclusionary zoning policy that requires apartment and condo developers to set aside 20 percent of their units as affordable housing for residents who earn less than 80 percent of the median family income. The policy includes tax waivers and other financial incentives in exchange for the inclusion of affordable units within new housing projects.

In February, the council approved an emergency measure that requires landlords to pay between $2,900 and $4,500 in moving costs to tenants they evict without cause or who are forced to move because of rent increases of 10 percent or more over a 12-month period. The Oregon Legislature also has pushed the housing crisis in Portland and across the state to the top of its 2017 agenda.

Housing relief cannot come too soon for low-income parents at Earl Boyles and throughout the metro area who want to see their children focus on learning rather than on where they are going to sleep at night.

Yoncalla Elementary Offers High-Quality Preschool for 20 Children

Yoncalla Elementary Offers High-Quality Preschool for 20 ChildrenYoncalla Elementary School begins offering high-quality preschool on Sept. 19 for 20 children, giving Yoncalla Early Works a big leap forward in its mission to prepare the district’s young children for school success.

“It is going to be a game changer,” says Erin Helgren, Yoncalla Early Works site liaison for Children’s Institute. Yoncalla Early Works is a partnership initiated by Yoncalla School District, and The Ford Family Foundation and Children’s Institute that now includes a network of local and regional partners.

It is a game changer because high-quality preschool effectively prepares children for kindergarten and school achievement and is a key component of early childhood education.

It is also a game changer because when Yoncalla Early Works began four years ago, parents said in a survey that they did not want preschool. Yet after a series of meetings this spring, it was Yoncalla parents who pushed the district to open a preschool for 4-year-olds with money from the new state program, Preschool Promise.

The growth in parent involvement, leadership, and trust in the school district has been Early Works’ most significant development and led directly to parents’ quest for a preschool, says Jan Zarate, superintendent of Yoncalla School District.

Parents “initiated the desire” for preschool after studying what it meant to be ready for kindergarten, she says. “They started looking at what does it look like to have social readiness and to be math ready and reading ready.”

Parents and educators hope and expect the preschool will help prepare all Yoncalla 4-year-olds for kindergarten and school success so teachers no longer have to play “catch up” in kindergarten and the early grades, Zarate says.

Kelli Stevens, 27, of Yoncalla, who serves on the preschool committee, says she hopes the class will help her 4-year-old daughter, Adriana Grable, interact socially with other children and learn numbers, letters and other fundamental skills that will prepare her for kindergarten.

“It is an amazing opportunity for children in the area,” she says.

The preschool opens in a classroom of what Yoncalla Elementary calls its birth-to-four or B-4 Building, where there are also rooms for the federal Early Head Start program and for Early Works family engagement efforts such as play groups for young children. The building this year has added a community engagement room, where Early Works partners such as the North Douglas Family Relief Nursery or the Douglas County Early Childhood Planning Coalition can offer parenting classes and other services.

To pay for the preschool, Yoncalla along with neighboring school districts applied through the South-Central Oregon Early Learning Hub for money from the Preschool Promise initiative, a program passed by the 2015 Legislature after a strong push from Children’s Institute and its partners, including the Oregon Early Learning Division, Oregon Health Authority, and Oregon Head Start Association. The state program, operated by the Oregon Early Learning Division, gave Yoncalla $12,500 for each of 16 preschool students, and the school is paying to add four more students with money from other Early Works partners, grants and federal sources.

The preschool must meet state standards for quality, which require one adult for every ten children and lead teachers with a bachelor’s degree (or a plan to attain one) in early childhood education or related field. The preschool will provide a bus, offer children breakfast and lunch and operate six hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Yoncalla hired two preschool teachers and will also provide a classroom assistant.

One teacher will be Cassie Reigard, a lifelong Yoncalla resident who has been operating a private preschool in Yoncalla that was started by her grandmother and later run by her mother. Reigard charged only $60 a month for the preschool, but many parents couldn’t afford even that. Now she will earn a regular teacher’s salary, and parents can send their children to the public preschool for free.

Also teaching will be Megan Barber, who grew up in Yoncalla, has two young children, has degrees in early childhood education and has worked recently as program manager and preschool teacher for North Douglas Family Relief Nursery. Barber hopes the school becomes a model that draws educators from across the state.

“I really want to make this the very best preschool in Oregon,” she says.

Christina Mast, 32, a lifelong Yoncalla resident, knows as a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Yoncalla Elementary how valuable preschool will be for its students, who will include her twin daughters. She also expects the preschool will mean that more students will eventually be reaching her classroom better prepared.

“It will be a huge, positive effect,” she says.

Early Works’ focus on engaging parents in their children’s education has had “a positive influence and ripple effect” in the neighboring school districts of Elkton and North Douglas in Drain, says Zarate. The three districts, for example, are collaborating on a program sponsored by The Oregon Community Foundation and other foundations called P-3 (prenatal through grade three) Alignment, to help connect families and early childhood providers to schools.

Similarly, the three districts worked together to apply for funding for Preschool Promise. So Elkton and Drain schools also will each be offering a preschool class this fall for nine students.

Public preschools are rare in Oregon, particularly in low-income rural areas like North Douglas, where 44 percent of the 5,000 residents live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and half of the children qualify for government subsidized free and reduced-price meals.

But what seemed impossible and not even a goal four years ago has become a reality for Yoncalla and its neighbors. Parents and educators already are raising their sights for next year.

“There may be a chance to grow here,” says Zarate, “We could look at a 3-year-old class.”

North Douglas County Residents Identify Health Needs


North Douglas County Residents Identify Health Needs

Child care is provided at community meetings so parents and caregivers can attend.


Residents of Yoncalla and two other North Douglas County communities say they need better access to health care, mental health services, healthy fresh food, and secure housing.


Those are the top needs that surfaced recently in the planning stage of a North Douglas County Community Health Needs Assessment conducted by Portland State University for the Yoncalla Early Works program, a partnership between Children’s Institute, Yoncalla School District, and The Ford Family Foundation.


Researchers from Portland State University’s Center for Improvement of Child and Family Services will study those needs in more depth this fall to get a better grasp of them and the best ways to meet them.


Early Works wants to address Yoncalla health problems because they can undermine the program’s core goal of improving children’s early learning and school success. Children who are healthy physically, socially and emotionally have an edge in school and are more likely to succeed, says Callie Lambarth, the PSU research associate who is heading the health assessment.


In the assessment’s planning phase, community members, local parents, and school and organization representatives had the opportunity to provide input to the research team and help shape the focus of the assessment. Researchers held eight meetings to explore community context and local data.


The researchers compiled existing health indicators for North Douglas County, where about 5,000 people live. The region, which sees about 40 births a year, has an infant mortality rate of 15 per 1,000 births, three times the state average; and 80 births per 1,000 to teenagers, which is more than twice the state average of 28. Nearly half of the residents, 44 percent, live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and 48 percent of the children qualify for government subsidized free and reduced-price meals. North Douglas County residents exceed the state average in rates of cancer, heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, injuries, diabetes and flu pneumonia.


Despite all these barriers to health, community members are coming together and dedicating their time and effort to this process. As one community member stated in the report: “Healthy, happy children are the heart of our community,” and that sentiment has been echoed time and time again from parents.


Researchers engaged community groups and discussed big questions such as: What does health look like? What services do families need and want? What needs to happen for services to be available and accessible?


The community must be involved in the assessment so that it can buy in to the findings and action plans that follow, says Elena Rivera, health policy and program adviser for Children’s Institute.


“You have to have true engagement and partnership from the very beginning,” she says. “It is incredibly important to have parents engaged and to have partners engaged from the start, because they know their community best and can guide us through the process.”


North Douglas County Residents Identify Health Needs

Yoncalla community members identify health needs at the Community Health Assessment kickoff meeting.


The health assessment is looking beyond Yoncalla to all of North Douglas, because no single community has the resources to address residents’ health needs, says Erin Helgren, Yoncalla Early Works site liaison. But if towns pool resources, they may be able to bring a doctor, nurse or mental health worker to the area, she says. The health assessment planning meetings also help draw together the North Douglas communities of Elkton, Drain and Yoncalla around a common purpose, Helgren says.


“Typically, there is an undercurrent of competitiveness between the three communities,” she says.


It also makes sense to make the health assessment regional, she says, because the North Douglas communities are collaborating on other education efforts such as P-3 (prenatal through grade three) Alignment, a program sponsored by the Oregon Community Foundation and other foundations to better connect families and early learning providers to schools, and the Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Fund supported by the state’s Early Learning Division.


The kickoff meeting for the health assessment planning on February 25 of this year brought together 45 community members, mayors and representatives of schools, service providers and organizations from the three towns in the forested hills of North Douglas. They met in the Drain Civic Center at the Mildred Whipple Library. Superintendents of two school districts and a principal from the third all spoke about the importance of working together, Helgren says. The leaders were “poignant and symbolic” in standing together, she says.


Community members concluded the next phase of the health assessment should focus on the needs for better access to affordable housing, fresh food, and health care, including mental health services. The assessment will look at barriers to services, such as long distances and limited transportation, and the best ways to address those.


Helgren says in North Douglas County she has seen pregnant women unable to access prenatal care, a child in foster care who could not make the 40-mile drive to Roseburg for counseling, and a woman with schizophrenia whose husband had to take a day off from work once a month to drive her to Roseburg for therapy.


North Douglas County Residents Identify Health Needs

Visualizations of a healthy community.


PSU launched the next phase of the assessment in August by convening a steering committee made up of community and local organization leaders and parents to decide on what more information they need to collect and how to collect it, Lambarth says. (“We are going to narrow the focus even further,” she says.) Research shows that stable and healthy families and nurturing parents are key to a child’s health. Involving parents in this assessment process is critical.


The region may want to expand its local health services, Lambarth says. If residents decide, for example, they want a part-time primary care physician, PSU researchers will use information collected in community surveys and meetings to recommend what days, times and places the doctor should be available.


Researchers expect to complete the health assessment by the end of the year. They will then work with the community to develop an action plan for next spring.


Early Works Helps Earl Boyles Families with Housing Needs

Early Works this summer is helping Earl Boyles Elementary families stay in their homes or find new ones as housing costs climb throughout east Multnomah County.

Josue Peña-Juarez, the new program’s housing and family advocate, has embarked on seeking new homes for two families who have been evicted from their apartments.

One man, his pregnant wife and three children recently received a 90-day no-cause eviction, and another family was evicted after a kitchen fire in their apartment. Peña-Juarez, who works out of an office in the school, will tap a housing assistance fund if needed to subsidize the families’ monthly rent and cover the first- and last-month deposit that landlords often require. However, just finding an available apartment is challenging because units have become scarce within Earl Boyle’s enrollment area, he says.

Early Works Helps Earl Boyles Families with Housing Needs

Early Works and Home Forward are helping Earl Boyles families stay in their homes or find new ones as housing costs climb throughout east Multnomah County.

Children’s Institute partnered with parents, Multnomah County’s Home Forward and other agencies to catalyze the new housing assistance program after a health assessment of Earl Boyles families revealed housing as their top concern, says Dana Hepper, director of policy and programs at the Institute.

In a survey of 83 families, the Institute found 75 percent of them had seen a rent increase in the last year, averaging $95. The increases were cutting into family budgets for food, clothing and other basic needs and in some cases pushing families out of their homes to live in motels or with friends and relatives or in less-expensive housing outside the Earl Boyles enrollment area.

That kind of disruption undermines Early Works’ chief objective of fostering early learning and school success at Earl Boyles. Children miss school and suffer stress that can contribute to emotional and behavioral problems, Hepper says.

“We were finding chronic absenteeism started in preschool through elementary school was in part driven by housing issues,” she says. “Stable, adequate housing we felt would improve attendance, which would help early learning.”

Student mobility, the movement of children from Earl Boyles to other schools, is low because families want to take advantage of its preschool and will do whatever they can to stay in the enrollment area, Hepper says. The Institute’s survey showed a third of families were getting help paying rent, most from families and friends.

The housing program exemplifies how multiple agencies can produce powerful results when they join forces on a common goal. After the Earl Boyles community named housing as its chief concern, Hepper met with Rachel Langford, education and youth initiatives director for Home Forward, the housing authority for Multnomah County. The agency agreed to put up $175,000 for each of two years to assist Earl Boyles families with housing costs. Home Forward has had success reducing student mobility at Alder Elementary in the nearby Reynolds School District and was impressed with the case Early Works made for housing needs at Earl Boyles, Langford says.

“We are trying to do more to be intentional about how we serve families in Multnomah County and how we serve kids in our work,” she says. “Earl Boyles data made it easy to do that.”

Multnomah County provided money to hire Peña-Juarez, who works through Portland’s Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, an agency the county contracts with to administer its programs. He has been working since last fall as a family resource navigator at Earl Boyles for the county’s Schools Uniting Neighborhoods (SUN) program so he already knows many of the families. Now his focus is on housing.

“I’m trying to be a broker of communication around housing services and explaining that to families in a way that is understandable and clear,” he says.

To get help, families must live within the Earl Boyles enrollment area and have gross annual incomes below 50 percent of the area median income, $36,650 for a family of four. The program gives priority to families in crisis of eviction or living in unstable housing, such as a motel or with another family. Program leaders expect that most of their housing money will be used to subsidize the rent of low-income families.

The Earl Boyles Service Coordination Team, which includes the school’s SUN site manager, principal, counselor, Early Works site liaison and IRCO housing and family advocate, meets every two weeks to consider applicants for housing help.

No one is sure how much demand there will be, Hepper says, but “we think the dollar amount will serve 50 families a year.”

The program also is helping families tap other agencies for help and is providing classes through the Earl Boyles Neighborhood Center on tenant rights, says Elena Rivera, who is working with partners on the program as Children Institute’s health policy and program adviser. Providing housing help through a school offers a new model, Rivera says.

The housing effort may help Home Forward see more clearly how its assistance helps families and children in school, Langford says.

“My hope in the first couple of years of this program is that we see it has a huge impact and we have the resources going forward,” she says. “Data is powerful in making that case.”

Children’s Institute will be collecting information on how the program affects children’s attendance, school performance and other indicators, Rivera says.

She says she wants the program “to demonstrate some positive outcomes that continue to shed light on the need to work with the whole child. Children cannot perform well in school if their basic needs are not met.”

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