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They were young. And homeless. And moms. Now, they have college degrees

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© Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post

By Meredith Kolodner, The Washington Post
LOUISVILLE

The single, formerly homeless mothers living in Family Scholar House apartments are used to seeing faces drawn down with pity or judgment when they tell their stories. Pregnant at 15. Bruised and beaten by a boyfriend. Kicked out of school. Living in a car or a windowless basement with an infant.

But when these women speak about their lives, their eyes rarely fall to the floor, and their faces do not mirror that unspoken expectation of shame. It may be the 3.0 GPA they’re earning at a Kentucky university, or the nursing degree just one semester away, or the fact that their first-graders sleep well and are learning to read.

Single moms have one of the lowest college graduation rates in the country, which has been linked to poverty that impedes their children’s ability to escape as well. But these formerly homeless women — along with a handful of men — in Louisville have a college graduation rate that exceeds that of their single, childless, more affluent peers. With a creative use of the Section 8 housing program, wall-to-wall counseling and perseverance, this community of women has defied the odds. Now, cities around the country are beginning to explore whether they can do the same thing.

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“If you meet two or three of people’s challenges, that’s good, but if they have 17 challenges, you’re not going to get very far,” said Cathe Dykstra, president and chief executive of the growing program. “It’s like dominoes — the things they need all lean against each other, and if one goes down, it knocks down everything else.”

More than 500 families have lived in one of Family Scholar House’s five apartment complexes during the past decade. The average stay is about three years, and every family has exited to stable housing. The combined college graduation rate of the parents is 86 percent. Three months after leaving the program, 70 percent of the women are not receiving any government assistance.

Nikka Norman moved into a two-bedroom apartment on a Family Scholar House campus with her newborn baby, Ariyah, in December 2016. She had been living with the baby’s father, but he beat her so badly that she miscarried Ariyah’s twin. She took the few belongings she had and began living out of her car. She slept there most nights, curled up and somehow balancing her growing belly in the back seat.

“I knew I had to get out,” she said, in a quiet but steady voice. “My goal was to not stop going to school no matter what.”

She didn’t. Studying at Brown Mackie College, a for-profit school, she took some of her classes on her phone online, using the WiFi and electrical outlet at a McDonald’s.

“I would just be in the car at night thinking, ‘I can still make it, he’s not going to stop me,’ ” Norman, who was then 21, recalled. “But I knew I had to find a place before the baby came.”

When Dykstra took over in 2005, she was determined to expand Family Scholar House, and did so by making use of the federal Section 8 program, which subsidizes low-income families so that most pay only 30 percent of their income toward housing. College students are not eligible for Section 8, but nontraditional students are an exception — and Family Scholar House students are clearly nontraditional.

They are enrolled in a postsecondary program full-time. They meet with academic and family counselors at least twice a month. To stay in the housing, parents must maintain a 2.0 GPA, and their children must be enrolled in “age-appropriate education.”

Family counselors with the program are trained social workers, skilled at accessing legal assistance and help with mental health and learning issues. Parents must take four financial-literacy courses before moving in. More than 800 families are on Family Scholar House’s waiting list. About five residents are asked to leave each year because of poor grades, but they get help finding stable housing.

Most residents are 27 to 32 years old, although some are as young as 18. About 75 percent are the first in their families to go to college, and 40 percent are the first in their families to finish high school. Ninety percent are holding down a job, usually working about 20 hours a week.

Niah Gilmore said she always knew she would go to college, but her path became complicated when she got pregnant at age 16.

In 2008, at age 18, she graduated from high school, her class valedictorian. She moved into Family Scholar House that August. Five years later, she moved out with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She has a job, owns her home and is working on her doctorate. As much as the services she received helped, she said, she could not have made it without the other women with which she lived.

“You would have those days when you would just ask, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It’s so hard,” said Gilmore, now 28.

Dykstra is patient, although forceful, about being constantly asked to name the most important support — the one thing — that makes the program so successful.

“As a society we get frustrated because we’re better with the idea that we can focus on one thing,” Dykstra says. “But if we keep trying to figure out what the one thing is, we miss the fact that there isn’t just one thing.”

Family Scholar House provides a web of interlocking supports. There are food pantries, computer rooms and volunteer tutors in each apartment complex. Community members and organizations donate furniture for newly arriving families.

Every child has a pediatrician within six months, cutting down on trips to the emergency room for basics such as fevers and asthma attacks. Having healthier kids also helps parents’ college attendance, which in turn helps their GPAs.

Dykstra is in talks with community leaders in Florida, Texas, New Hampshire and West Virginia about how they can replicate the Louisville model.

Meanwhile, Nikka Norman is only a year and a half away from earning her nursing degree at the University of Louisville.

When she moved into Family Scholar House, Ariyah was three weeks old, and classes were about to start. But the day-care center would not take the baby until she was six weeks old.

“I just took her with me,” Norman said. “She just slept on me when I went to classes, and I just didn’t bother with what anyone thought.”

“I am nowhere near where I was a year ago,” she added. “I’m going to make it.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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