Bringing Education Home: One Non-Profit’s Vision

13May06

Critical Issues in Education

In 2001, Peoples’ Self-Help Housing (PSHH), a non-profit organization, entered into the arena of education. PSHH began operating over 35 years ago to provide affordable housing in California’s Central Coast region—a region that is “home” to a diverse range of residents, especially when one looked at the socioeconomic status of the residents. A large portion of the population served by PSHH is the migrant farmworker population and many residents are considered very low-income.

Along with financial difficulties, many of the adult residents at PSHH’s apartment communities had quite low education levels. Additionally, for many of them their English skills were either extremely low or non-existent. All these factors combined to form a scenario where their children were suffering academically because of environmental inputs. While PSHH had already done a fantastic job of providing extremely high-quality affordable housing, part of their vision of “transforming lives” was yet to be realized.

To help realize their vision, PSHH piloted an after-school program, the Education Enhancement Program (EEP), to address some of the academic shortcomings of the children residing at their apartment communities. The program was started at the request of a number of families who approached the resident manager at one of PSHH’s apartment communities. They wanted to know if the resident manager could make recommendations on how to help their children succeed. Often, they also came to the resident manager to ask her to explain what their children were supposed to do for homework since their English skills were too limited to understand the different packets sent home.

Recognizing both the burden this placed on the resident manager and the unrealistic expectation that a single person would be able to help all the residents who needed help, PSHH began to explore other options. After extensive meetings with school administrators, families, and community members, PSHH applied for a grant to start an in-house pilot after-school program. The rationale was simple: many of the families had two problems to address which could be solved by one program. First, the families had the problem of their children falling behind academically. Second, because of the long hours worked by many of the parents, adequate after-school supervision was needed for their children. The after-school program would be able to offer both of those, and because the program was housed in the apartment community, the parents would not need to worry about arranging transportation for their children to and from the program.

I was hired as part of a two-person team of program coordinators to lead the program’s design. From the start, my co-worker and I recognized the need for strong linkages with school personnel, so we started working on building our relationships with them from our first day on the job. We made frequent visits to the schools to meet with the principals and teachers to find out how we would be able to best help them achieve their educational goals (improved literacy levels were stressed by almost 100% of the interviewees). We also designed the necessary paperwork that would give us access to student grades and collected whatever past grade reports we could get to start building our student files.

Along with working on building relationships with the teachers, we also started building the trust and interest of the parents. This was actually relatively easy since many of the parents were already very appreciative of what PSHH had done in terms of providing exceptional housing conditions and, as mentioned earlier, many of the parents had been hoping for a program like this one for quite some time. We met with parents and made sure that we asked them what their expectations of the program and of their children were; we also took an “inventory of skills” of the parents to find ways in which they would be able to participate in the program.

After a couple of months of preparation including the above mentioned meetings and designing our curricula based on them, we also began a volunteer recruitment and training campaign. Initially, we recruited volunteers primarily through the local colleges and universities; later, we also started bringing in volunteers from the community as well as high-school students looking to earn community service hours. All volunteers had to go through a brief training session before joining the program with the bulk of the training to take place “on-the-job.” Once we had an adequate number of trained volunteers, we started offering the EEP.

Despite a somewhat rough beginning due to its nature as a pilot program, the EEP proved to be a very successful after-school program. Within the first six months, teachers began contacting us to congratulate us on our work so far, especially our help with improving the literacy level of the students. Teachers also occasionally visited the program for an afternoon, reinforcing the validity of the program to the parents and reinforcing to the students that they cared about their education. Students quickly began to become more self-confident because of the extra support they were receiving. Although many of them were still performing well-below their grade levels, they were making great steps towards catching up with their peers. Overall, the pilot program was successful enough to be used as a model to establish several other EEP programs at PSHH’s other affordable housing communities.


This overview of the EEP may make it sound like it was an easy initiative to implement; however, there are considerable difficulties in the background operations which provide constant challenges. The first challenge, as is often the biggest challenge with many educational programs, is securing funding for the program. The pilot program was started with a matching-grant from a local philanthropic organization. Based on our success, they were willing to help fund each successive year, but as the program grew, so did our costs. Thus, my co-worker and I often found ourselves very busy trying to fill the roles both of program coordinators and of grant writers.

Along with funding problems, running a program almost entirely on volunteers is also a challenging task. Most of our community based volunteers were more reliable as long-term volunteers, while the commitment from college and university students was usually cyclically based on things like their midterms and finals. Thus, we had to ensure that we had a strongly committed volunteer base that was able to reinforce additional volunteers who helped out on a more flexible schedule.

The PSHH educational program was a very innovative change in the local community. It was innovative in its inclusion of education as a critical “quality-of-life” input—something we often hear mentioned, but often in a more theoretical way. Although the numbers served may be relatively small—the program was restricted to children of residents only—the results were quite quickly observable and added to the feeling of community among the participants. Parents at the apartment community began to build a better relationship with the schools, and although at-school participation did not increase—largely due to work-related constraints—may teachers reported that back-to-school nights and conferences were better attended following a student’s enrollment in our program. The EEP was one small step in the right direction for many of these students, and I am glad that I was a part of its creation.

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