House of Hope
A new living and education concept that helps people raise themselves out of poverty could become a national model.
by John Stearns
A concept for a residential and educational community is emerging in Wichita that planners believe has the potential to become a national model for breaking the chain of intergenerational poverty.
"It's probably the best idea I have heard in my career to make meaningful changes in a sustainable way with families who are low income with children," says Mike Duxler, associate professor of social work at Newman University.
That idea is called Spero House. Spero is Latin for hope and its Latin pronunciation is "sparrow."
It's the brainchild of Wichita apartment developer Jason Van Sickle, a blend of sociologist and developer who says his passion is education. His idea, the germination of which he traces back to 2006 when he envisioned a combined day care and low-income housing facility, has evolved dramatically with the help of university researchers, early-childhood education experts and others.
Spero House, Van Sickle says, will be a new, high-quality 96-unit apartment community where poor, working families live and will include a separate, on-site education and community center where their children ages 0 to 5 receive early education and care and their K-12 siblings receive after-school tutoring and help in areas such as post-secondary education preparation. Parents would learn on evenings and weekends ways to better themselves and their families - everything from parenting skills to basic life skills like balancing a checkbook and navigating the Internet, preparing for a GED, advanced education or job training.
"There's a lot of great organizations out there doing wonderful things for poverty intervention, and our concept is, why don't you just pile them all together and just attack poverty with every resource you can find," says Van Sickle, who leads a core group of 10, including Duxler, meeting monthly on the project, with a smaller group of those 10 meeting weekly to plan the education format. "In this case, we're throwing everything at it, including the kitchen sink, because it's not just the (education) services, it's the hosing."
The housing will require people to pay 30 percent of their income on rent, whether someone makes minimum wage or more, but if someone benefits enough from the program that their income jumps, the rent could be capped and excess income perhaps directed to a savings account that might go toward a future down-payment on a home, Van Sickle suggests of one possible scenario.
Focus on Education and the Whole Family
Education, not the apartments, is the focus of Spero House, from 0-5 early childhood to K-12 tutoring to parental education, training and social services - all creating a full-family focus on betterment.
"The thing that got my attention early on was the approach of reaching out to families, the family unit," says Ray Frederick Jr., president of Frederick Plumbing & Heating Inc. and former Wichita Area Technical College board member and interim WATC president in 2010. "Certainly ... early childhood and development is a critical part of this, but in my opinion, so many of the challenges that we have today deal with what's happening to the family unit. And as Jason has described his vision, it's not just apartments, it's not just early childhood development, (Spero House) encompasses the whole family unit and educating them. And it could be educating them as far as book skill, education skill, it could be parenting skill, it could be job skill, all those things, but in an effort to certainly build up the family."
Many programs, whether government or privately run, that intervene early with children to prepare them for life get criticized for lessons seemingly failing to last, Van Sickle says.
"Part of that is because you've got to change their entire environment, not only their physical environment, but their family environment," he says. "To me, this is as much about intervening with the adults as it is with the children."
Standardized poverty benchmarks will determine financially eligibility for Spero House. But there's more required.
"I think part of our screening process and the kind of families we want are families who can convey a desire to better themselves, to take advantage of resources that previously are not given in a way we're giving it and be able to use those five years to transform fundamentally the structure of their family," Duxler says.
That means parents who have a history of trying to stay gainfully employed, for example, but maybe haven't had mentors to help them take the next step, Van Sickle says. Other criteria include: If the parent has a history of substance abuse, he or she must show a history of sobriety and there can't be a criminal record.
Says Matt Jordan, chief operating officer at the Kansas Leadership Center, "We're not looking for people who simply want a place to live, we're looking for families who want a pathway to a better future."
The program targets infants to immediately set them on the right learning path.
"The earlier that we can begin to educate a child, the better; it starts at birth," says Dene Nelson, director and founder of Discovery Place. "What we know about working with very young children is that relationships are extremely important in their growth and development," she adds, noting Spero House could help parents build those positive relationships by learning skills to build strong attachments and bonds with their children.
Parents can live in a nice place at a fair price, "while their children get state-of-the-art, top-notch education - and that's rare," says Greg Meissen, professor of psychology and coordinator, community psychology doctoral program at WSU, who says Spero House has the potential to have an immediate positive impact and change the cycle around education and poverty long term. He calls it "perfect for the urban mission of all three universities."
Newman, WSU and Friends University representatives are collaborating on Spero House, the education component of which is still being fine-tuned.
But the idea is that undergraduate and grad students would get real-world experience working with the youth and be overseen by professors. The education component would tap proven teaching methods, but also be a real-world laboratory for what works locally and what doesn't, providing intellectual, psychological and social training to lay a foundation for success in life, Van Sickle says.
That applies to adult education, too.
"We're going to try some great ideas and just see what works even better," Van Sickle says.
"What excites me most as an analyst is that this isn't just poverty intervention on the scale of 96 families and their kids ... that would be enough, but this is also a research project," he says, hoping to build a large database of sharable poverty and education intervention research.
Life after Spero House
So what happens after a child turns 5 and the family leaves Spero House, and older siblings and parents graduate from their respective programs there?
During the five years, parents are trying to figure out how to get their families into a better situation, Van Sickle says. Spero House planners are considering scenarios for a second phase of Spero House that could include transitional, rent-to-own-type housing units after graduation, he says, noting that getting out of poverty extends beyond knowledge and education to accumulating assets.
At minimum, Spero House wants to track graduate families and provide a support network they can rely on, he says.
Meissen expects many people will move into a better place in life before five years.
Van Sickle also would like a second phase to include a K-12 school for Spero House graduates and siblings.
Van Sickle says organizers welcome input on Spero House, whether from individual philanthropists, organizations with their own poverty-intervention focus or education-focused organizations.
Key, organizers say, is creating something that can be replicated nationally and customized to communities and their different populations and needs.
Spero House has that potential to be broad-based in its impact and sustainable, Duxler says.
Organizers know their task is big.
"We got a sense very early on that this was all bigger than us," Duxler says. "A lot is at stake here. We're willing, I think, to stick our necks out over and over again to say we're going to do this."
When the first Spero House opens, Van sickle says it will "unequivocally and unalterably" change the lives of 96 families from that day forward.
Says Meissen, "Our community needs a positive example of how to approach these kinds of issues that's local, it's built from the ground up and it's not going to be dependent on Washington or Topeka to make it happen."
It will happen, Van Sickle says, envisioning six to 12 more months of planning, with opening in 18 to 24 months.