Affordable Housing Institute Names Betsey Martens 2015 AHI Fellow

Betsey Martens, CEO of Boulder Housing Partners, has been named the 2015 AHI Fellow for her pioneering research into using public and affordable housing as a place-based nexus for disrupting the cycle of poverty by Bringing School Home, which creates a comprehensive public/private partnership to enable children from very low income households to supplement, complement, and reinforce the learning they need and want from the school system.  The AHI Fellowship carries with it an 18-month curriculum, custom-designed by AHI in partnership with the Fellow, for collaboration, research and development, and eventual rollout of additional pilot sites beyond the two now operating in Boulder, CO and New York City. 

“For me as an AHI Fellow,” said Betsey Martens, “this is both a tremendous honor and a tremendous opportunity to take what we have done in Boulder, contextualize it, and adapt it for scalability nationally.  In Boulder, we have demonstrated some things that work powerfully, and I want to explore and demonstrate that we are not simply a successful experiment, but in the vanguard of a movement that can transform the effectiveness of public schooling.”

For the last 18 years, Boulder Housing Partners, the public housing authority of Boulder, Colorado, has been developing the partnership with I Have a Dream Foundation. Starting at age five, selected children of public housing families are connected with a full time program director acting as a kind of uncle (tio) or aunt (tia), who follows the child and family all the way through their secondary education to assure high school graduation and post-secondary matriculation. The program offers a package of continuous learning – extending the school experience to after school, evenings and nights, on weekends, and during the summer. “In a child’s first 18 years, only 9% of his or her time is spent in school; the remaining 91% is home-based,” Ms. Martens said. “As affordable housing providers we can work with parents to significantly affect what happens in that 91% space.”  She added, “Bringing School Home has the data to prove it: 92% of our children graduate from high school, versus 63% of their peers.” 

Research done by Ms. Martens during a four-week research sabbatical at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Study Center found that in the US, more than 1,000,000 children drop out of school annually, a massive loss of previous educational investment and a disruption that impairs them economically throughout their lives.  These dropouts, her work suggests, are in part a consequence of disrupted learning in the years before.  For instance, not achieving third-grade reading by third grade proves a strong leading indicator of eventually dropping out, and significantly increases the likelihood of future incarceration, with consequent costs to people and society.  “Up through third grade, a child is learning to read,” she said.  “From third grade on, she reads to learn – and the system assumes she can read well enough to do that.”  Such children fall further and further behind their peers, with dropping out an increasingly likely choice.

“At AHI, we know that housing is central to growing successful cities and successful families,” said AHI founder and CEO David A. Smith.  “Affordable housing is where ‘fundamental jobs’ – those done by ordinary working people – go to sleep at night, and where the next generation of workers learns what the world is like.  The more we can make the home a place of learning, safety, and role models, the better for children, families, communities, and the nation.”  AHI works on pro-poor housing solutions worldwide, having worked in more than 25 countries from Abu Dhabi to Vietnam, and with current active work in Haiti, India, and Mexico.  “Throughout the world,” he added, “improvements in the quality and affordability of housing yield multiplier effects on children’s education, family health, family stability, gender equity, income generation, and municipal governance.  We’ve selected Betsey for an AHI Fellowship because her work is universally applicable and will benefit from peer-to-peer connections we can help her make in other countries and with other similar motivated actors.”

According to Ms. Martens, a central and over-looked ingredient in the recipe to close the achievement and opportunity gap for low income children is stable, quality, affordable housing.  One of the most important things a child does is grow, and that includes learning, which happens continuously, all day every day, even if the out-of-school learning is subconscious.  “Sleep is when the mind integrates knowledge and experience,” she said, “and disrupted sleep impairs in-school performance.  Giving children safe and quiet homes to sleep in is essential.”  The same applies to summer vacations; test scores show that children from higher-income families return with higher cognitive capacity after a summer; those with lower incomes fall behind their peers.  “Bringing School Home is all about placing the child at the center of rings of help – her family and the BSH education navigator, her fellow public housing residents, and the public schools themselves.”  

“For us in public housing,” said Preston Prince, President of NAHRO and Executive Director of the Fresno Housing Authority, “Betsey’s work directly addresses a missing link – research and evidence that can buttress NAHRO’s interest in pursuing legislative and regulatory change that will allow public housing to become not just a residential asset but the first and best place children learn how to be successful, independent, productive Americans.”  This also furthers AHI’s mission, reported CEO David Smith: “We think the solution is its own salesware.  Design or discover a successful program; improve it; help it become scalable and replicable; and make all that learning available, open-book, for public input and public benefit.  That’s how you take intriguing ideas and transform them into actionable pilots and then effective broad-based movements.”