Reading, Writing, Evicted: How Austin, Texas, hopes to combat student turnover
This is the third in a three-part series that examines the impact of Portland's housing crisis on children. This series was produced with the support of the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and its Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism.
Other stories in the series include:
Reading, Writing, Evicted: Portland's housing crisis is an education story
Reading, Writing, Evicted: Portland children don't pay rent but they are paying a price
Reading, Writing, Evicted: Whole classrooms suffer when high rents upend children
Reading, Writing, Evicted: A bus ride to belong
Reading, Writing, Evicted: A no-cause eviction haunts a mom and her three kids
AUSTIN, TEXAS — It all started when Doyle Valdez noticed children were disappearing.
He’d see students making academic strides, but one day, they would just vanish. Along with them, he said, went all the investment in their educational success.
Valdez, a native Austenite with a big truck and a big mustache, investigated. What he found was a common culprit: Austin’s hot housing market was pricing out families in the neighborhood.
But unlike in Portland, where officials are largely still at the hand-wringing stage, Valdez has helped his Texas school district take proactive steps to help children affected by skyrocketing rents remain in the same school.
Austin is an instructive place for Portland policymakers to watch. People lump Austin and Portland together for their campaigns to stay weird, the presence of Voodoo Doughnuts and their overhyped reputations as hipster havens. The cities also share a housing climate that is straining working-class families whose stories can get lost in cities known to attract the young and cool.
Last year, 18 percent of the students in Austin Independent School District moved mid-school year, Texas Education Agency figures show. On average, Valdez said, those children missed out on a full week of school during that transition.
So, Valdez as an Austin education advocate and former school board member, set out to find a savior, an expert, someone he could bring in to help.
But over and over the only advice he got was to give up. Ending student churn, people told him, was impossible.
“You can’t do anything about it.”
“Just help them wherever they land.”
But Valdez had seen first-hand that when a child moves in the middle of the school year, the child and the school suffer. He couldn’t give up on finding a systemic fix.
“I said I just have to do it,” Valdez said.
This school year, his plan to reduce turnover in the Austin Independent School District is full-blown. He had a small successful pilot of the program last year, and now his company, Mobility Blueprint, has a $100,000 one-year contract with the school district.
Valdez has also given a few talks in national education circles about his ideas, and he hopes it’s the beginning of a shift in the education world to take action against the harmful effects of housing displacement on students and schools.
"I can't tell you how many time I've been told we can't do anything about it,” he said. "We know we are never going to reduce mobility 100 percent — but what if we could target and understand the mobile students and address that to help reduce mobility? What if we could reduce it by 20 or 25 or 30 percent over time? What can that do for our kids academically?"
The foundation of Valdez’s solution is in technology. He created a website that shows — in real time — affordable apartments by school zone. A family can readily identify another home that might allow them to keep their children in the same school.
The site also has a profile on all the district’s schools, customized with input from the school itself. That way if parents can’t afford any rentals within their school zone, they can look to see if another school might offer an easier transition for their children based on program offerings.
And it isn’t just a fancy tool. Mobility Blueprint equips teachers and school staff at large to engage with families who may have to relocate.
A core team of people at each school are deeply trained on how housing instability affects academics and are then prepared to assist families who are facing a move. They can print off listings using the website. They also are trained how to ease the transition for students coming in and going out.
“We developed these training modules to really embrace, not just teachers, but staff,” Valdez said. “Custodians in an elementary school know just as much, if not more, of what’s going on with that community than anybody.”
Principals, school staff and high-level figures in Austin Independent School District’s central office told The Oregonian/OregonLive the biggest shift they’ve seen is how they view themselves in relation to the housing crisis. No longer do they feel consigned to a passive role. Mobility Blueprint has allowed the district to be proactive. For parents and school staff, being able to have a picture of what housing looks like in their school zone is empowering, Austin school district employees said.
“(Before) it was always an after the fact, rather than, ‘Let’s try and avoid this all together, here are some other housing opportunities for you,’” said Superintendent Paul Cruz. “So it really did change the game for us.”
Outside Wooten Elementary are laminated signs that say:
DO YOU NEED TO MOVE?
¿NECESITAS MUDARTE DE CASA?
Wooten Parent Support Specialist Bernardo Martinez has been at the school for 19 years and with the district for 26. One of his biggest concerns for families, he said, is housing instability.
Children who struggle with attendance, he said, can feel like a nuisance to a teacher who isn’t thinking about how a housing crisis impedes learning. If a teacher is on a rant about a student’s attendance, Martinez replies, “Well what have you done?”
“What do you mean?” they often say back, he said. “I’m the teacher.”
“Yes, you are the teacher,” he will say. “Do you know what’s going on with the parents?”
“Do you know where they live?”
Those moments, Martinez said, are an opportunity.
He said he loves Mobility Blueprint and it’s a hit with parents. He has seen parents use information from the website about rents in their area as leverage with landlords to lessen a rent increase that would force them to move.
Brittany Capps, graduation coach at Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a public middle school for girls, said the ability for schools to be involved on the front-end of a move can reduces educational gaps. It cuts out time a family might spend apartment hunting or learning time a kid might lose due to a rocky move.
"Before they had nobody to go to and nobody to talk to,” said Christina Almaraz Ortiz, principal at Sadler Means. “We have met a lot of families that this is not how they want to raise their families. It’s not a situation they thought they were ever going to be in. This is about income. To us it’s concerning because how does that make our families feel? They feel inadequate. They feel like horrible parents.”
As children are pushed out of Oregon’s largest school district, one of the places they land is the David Douglas school district in Southeast Portland. While rents in the area have shot up 30 percent on average over the past three years, according to Zillow, they are still some of the lowest in the city, averaging $1,600.
Earl Boyles Elementary, at the western edge of the district, is unique in that it has a housing advocate. Josué Peña-Juárez can dispense limited housing assistance funds, goes to eviction court if need be and counsels families on how to handle housing problems.
He echoes the importance of what many in Austin notice: That that educators should be aware a housing crisis can manifest in children in ways that aren’t always clear. That families in crisis-mode need help to stay within the school zone if possible. That as the housing crisis worsens, families are going to continue to be pushed out.
A child who looks like troublemaker, Peña-Juárez said, might just be a child experiencing housing instability. A child who’s rude or abrasive could be a child uncertain where he or she will live next week.
One child, for example, couldn’t stay awake in class. Before the school was attuned to housing instability and its effects, teachers might have punished the child or shamed the parents, which would have only made things worse.
As it turned out, the child was tired because every night he and his family had to sneak back into an apartment they shared with another family. Only one family was allowed on the lease and it was necessary to stay away until midnight to avoid being seen by the landlord, Peña-Juárez said.
Eventually, they got caught. Peña-Juárez went to eviction court and helped them avoid a judgment on their record. He also worked with them to find stable housing, which took a year.
Peña-Juárez also worries about families who are forced to accept living conditions that are unclean and unsafe.
“Where we are, a roof is a roof, unfortunately,” he said. “It might not be the best roof, but it's a roof.”
Families ask him how they can buy a home to avoid being jerked around by unpredictable landlords. Mostly he imparts bad news: It’s hard and probably not an option.
And even keeping families in the David Douglas district is difficult.
"I don’t think most of our families ever thought it would get like this here because our neighborhood and our streets, they don't even have sidewalks,” Peña-Juárez said. Still, families are finding themselves priced out.
There’s a lack of centralized information, he said. Parents will find a less expensive apartment they think must be in the school zone because it’s close, he said, but unknowingly have chosen an apartment zoned for a different school.
It’s hard to stay abreast of current apartment rates and, even if he did keep a list, apartments often change owners, making them hard to track, he said. When parents ask where the affordable housing is, he said, the answer is often not in the school zone or even school district.
"What does it mean if I'm trying to house someone and (they end up) way out of district?" Peña-Juárez said. "What's the point if we can't have our families stay here year to year?"
In Austin, it’s too early to tell if Valdez’s efforts are going to work. Mobility Blueprint just rolled out this year to all 130 of the Texas district’s schools. Feedback so far has been positive. Anecdotally, staffers and parents say they feel better equipped in the face of rising rents.
Valdez says Mobility Blueprint is tracking how often the site is used and in what zip codes. As of November, users have been able to input more data about themselves to aid in their searches. That will allow the district to learn more about mobile families and their housing needs.
Cruz, the superintendent, is hopeful it will help the district minimize the loss of instructional time when students move.
“It’s always been an issue,” he said. “It was just something there was no solution for.”
[This story was originally published by The Oregonian.]