Test scores and ZIP codes: Educators say housing is a factor in achievement

If you want to predict children’s chances for success in school, the latest test scores tell only part of the story. You might want to check their ZIP codes, too.

That was a key message at a forum Wednesday in Hartford, where a series of experts said the quality of children’s health and education is closely linked to the neighborhoods and houses where they live.

Children whose families live in substandard housing or are burdened by housing costs are more susceptible to conditions such as lead poisoning, asthma, hunger, depression and emotional and behavioral problems, according to panelists.

About 20 educators, housing experts, health officials and others spoke at a forum sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the Partnership for Strong Communities.

Conference organizers emphasized the connection between housing and children’s well-being, citing a recent comment by U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donavan, who told Congress, “No child’s chances in life should be determined by the ZIP code they grew up in.”

Health problems and poor school performance often stem from poverty, including “the effects of housing and the environment in which children live,” said panelist Charles Basch, a professor at Teachers’ College at Columbia University.

Educators have tried strategies such as charter schools, teacher training, and more rigorous standards, but “no matter how hard we try, if children are not motivated and ready to learn, we’re not going to get very far,” Basch said.

What is needed, he said, is a more coordinated effort among various agencies to address the problem, including, for example, policies “that make health part of the fundamental mission of schools.”

Several speakers talked about the need for more affordable housing in some of Connecticut’s middle class suburbs.

“We believe it’s the best strategy to break the cycle of poverty,” said Geoff Sager, president of Metro Realty Group, a Farmington-based developer that has created affordable housing developments in Avon and Farmington.

“A student living in affordable housing in Avon, Farmington or Berlin and attending high school there is extremely likely to graduate and proceed to college.” he said.

While affordable housing is part of the long-term solution, Christie Gilluly, principal of Uncas Elementary School in Norwich, said there is an immediate need for improving homeless shelters and providing other support for homeless families, including health and nutrition support in schools.

The forum included brief remarks from a 20-year-old college student who had been homeless as a high school student at Hartford’s Classical Magnet School. “My grades were slipping.  I was sleeping in class,” said K.L., who asked that his full name not be used. He said he stayed briefly at a homeless shelter and lived with friends before living with his uncle.

He is now attending New England College in New Hampshire. At Classical Magnet, he graduated with a C average, he said. “I knew the work, but I wasn’t motivated to do it. I had other problems.”

George Coleman, deputy commissioner in the State Department of Education, said K.L. had the advantage of attending Classical Magnet, a highly regarded school where students gain admission through a lottery.

About 15,000 students put their names in the lottery for magnet schools in the Hartford region this year, but the schools had the capacity to accept only a fraction of that number, Coleman said. “Education cannot be supplied by chance,” he said. “We have to make every option in our state a good one.”

Wednesday’s conference was the fourth of five forums on housing issues in a series developed by the Partnership for Strong Communities. The final forum, “Urban Housing and Community Development,” is scheduled for May 26 at the Lyceum Resource and Conference Center, 227 Lawrence St., Hartford.