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Nikka Norman, a nursing student at the University of Louisville, helps her daughter, Ariyah, with a snack.
Nikka Norman, a nursing student at the University of Louisville, helps her daughter, Ariyah, with a snack. Credit: Meredith Kolodner/The Hechinger Report

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — 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 don’t 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 a grinding, constricting poverty that impedes their children’s ability to escape as well. But these formerly homeless women (and 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 a consciously cultivated perseverance, this community of women has defied the odds. And now, cities around the country are beginning to explore whether they can do the same thing.

“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 CEO of the growing program. “It’s like dominos – 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 her boyfriend, 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.”

Related: Number of single moms in college doubled in 12 years, so why aren’t they graduating?

And she didn’t. Studying at Brown Mackie College, a for-profit school, at the time, she took some of her classes on her phone online, using the Wi-Fi and electrical outlet at a local 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.”

Although started in 1995, the Family Scholar House program could serve only a small number of women at a time until 2005. That’s when Dykstra took over. She was determined to find a way to create a stable housing base large enough to serve many more.

Josiah, 4, lives with his mom in a Family Scholar House apartment.
Josiah, 4, lives with his mom in a Family Scholar House apartment. Credit: Meredith Kolodner/The Hechinger Report

She did so by making novel use of the Section 8 program, which subsidizes low-income families so that most pay just 30 percent of their income toward housing costs. College students are not eligible for Section 8, but nontraditional students are an exception.

Dykstra worked with a developer to find unused buildings and lots that could be developed into low-income apartments. She also worked out a deal with the Louisville Metro Housing Authority to allow the new housing projects to be entirely Section 8, meaning that anyone who moved in would be automatically accepted into the program. (With more than 20,000 people on Louisville’s Section 8 waiting list, it can take more than six years to get in, FSH staffers report, but for Family Scholar House applicants, it usually takes about six to 12 months.) To be eligible, applicants must be without stable housing and have full physical custody of at least one minor child. Like all Section 8 recipients, they must have limited income — below $28,850 for a family of three, for example.

But Family Scholar House has additional requirements. Residents must enroll in a post-secondary program full-time and meet with academic and family counselors at least twice a month. They also must perform four hours of community service and take part in one community activity each month (options include the Toddler Book Club and Family Café Night, which comes with a free meal). The parents must maintain a 2.0 GPA, and the children must be enrolled in “age-appropriate education.” Unauthorized guests are prohibited for safety reasons.

Niah Gilmore moved into an FSH apartment in 2008 with her one-year- old son and moved out in 2013 with a college degree. She is now working on her doctorate.
Niah Gilmore moved into an FSH apartment in 2008 with her one-year-old son and moved out in 2013 with a college degree. She is now working on her doctorate. Credit: Meredith Kolodner/The Hechinger Report

The program’s family counselors are trained social workers, skilled at accessing help with matters like debt refinancing, legal help for restraining orders and child support, or support for  mental health and learning issues. Parents must take four financial-literacy classes and four academic readiness classes (available online) 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.

Related: A program helps low-income parents graduate at twice the rate of other community college students

Many women arrive at Family Scholar House having attempted college previously; they may have some college credits, as well as student debt. They are as young as 18 or as old as 48, but most are 27 to 32 years old. 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, according to program administrators. And 90 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 more 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 of science degree in nursing. She now has a job, owns her home and is working on her doctorate. As much as all the program’s services helped her, she said, she couldn’t have made it without the other women she lived among.

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

She and her neighbor would take turns making dinner or doing each other’s hair.

“Sometimes it was just sitting out on the porch while the babies were sleeping … doing our homework,” she said. “They’re there and they get it, and then you can keep going.”

Dykstra knows how important it is to develop these personal connections, noting that there is a good reason many colleges require freshmen to live on campus for their first year.

And she 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.”

To stop the negative domino effect, Family Scholar House provides a web of interlocking supports. Each apartment complex has food pantries, computer rooms and volunteer tutors.

Community members and organizations donate furniture for newly arriving families. There are washers and dryers in every apartment, courtesy of General Electric, which cuts down on time-consuming trips to the laundromat.

Related: With number of student-parents up, availability of campus child care is down

Every child gets a pediatrician within six months, reducing visits 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.

Dominic, 3 and Zaire, 2, play while their moms take part in a conversation about bullying at a Family Scholar House Café Night.
Dominic, 3 and Zaire, 2, play while their moms take part in a conversation about bullying at a Family Scholar House Café Night. Credit: Meredith Kolodner/The Hechinger Report

Some complexes also have fitness rooms, yoga and Tai Chi classes and occasional treats like trips to see “The Nutcracker” at the Louisville Ballet.

“I think a lot of us don’t realize that’s what we had growing up,” said Dykstra, referring to successful middle-class college graduates.

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

Wayland Jones is one of a handful of men in the program. He became a single father of three children, now aged 12, 10 and 8, when their mom died three years ago. Their grandmother died four months later. He had been working construction part-time, in an effort to be present for his kids, but that made paying the bills very difficult.

“They’ve just seen so much death,” he said, his voice soft and anguished. “There’s so much help here.”

Jones said he never thought much about college while in high school, when his main focus was football, but he is now enrolled at Jefferson Community and Technical College, majoring in business.

“I want to do my best. I know I can do it,” said Jones, 32. “I just feel like this will help. Everybody needs a little help.”

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

“That first semester was the hardest of my life,” she said.

She moved into Family Scholar House when Ariyah was three weeks old and classes were about to start, but the day care center wouldn’t take the baby until she was six weeks old.

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

Then, at three months, Ariyah had to have throat surgery, which was successful. To get through all the academic and personal hurdles she faced, Norman made use of FSH’s counseling services, writing center and career workshops to guide her course choices.

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

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