Meet Our Student Stability Manager!

Working with schools is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness. Megan Johnson joins the Anchor Community Initiative as the Student Stability Manager to create and implement a schools strategy. Megan tells us why this issue is so important to her, and why we need to work with schools to achieve our mission.

Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in empowering people. As an addiction counselor, I wanted to empower my clients to take the steps they needed to live the lives they wanted. When I went back to school for a Master’s in Public Administration, I was driven by my belief that effective policy driven by the voices of those who are impacted can empower entire communities.

My graduate program required a Master’s thesis, and at first I thought my thesis would be about equity in the workplace. I wanted to focus on wages, and how they had not kept up with the cost of living in the region over the past thirty years, leading to homelessness, poverty, and a host of other social problems.  That was my plan  up until the very day we had to discuss our thesis topics in class. I remember I was driving to Seattle University and I was sitting at a stoplight on James Street, listening to a story on NPR about students experiencing homelessness in Washington State.

Megan, her dad and her stepmom on her graduation day

The story started talking about Schoolhouse Washington data, and how around our state approximately 40,000 youth ages 12-18 are experiencing homelessness on any given night.  Maybe I was tired after a long day, or maybe the topic just hit close to home, or most likely both, but I started crying.  To me, that statistic was unacceptable. We cannot allow tens of thousands of children and youth to live without a stable place to call home during their formative years. So, on my way to class, I decided to change my thesis topic and focus on student homelessness instead.

As I worked on my thesis, I saw firsthand how deep inequity runs in our systems. Across different school districts, schools around the state vary wildly in their resources to support students experiencing homelessness and in their capacity to apply for grants. These disparities lead to vastly different outcomes for students of color and students in rural communities – Schoolhouse Washington recently reported that six out of ten students experiencing homelessness are students of color, and that students in rural areas experience homelessness at a higher rate.  These appalling statistics propel me. They drive me to devote my work to this issue because students of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, religions and housing circumstances deserve equitable access to education.

To end youth and young adult homelessness, we need to work in partnership with the school system. Many times, school is the only constant place for students experiencing homelessness. We need buy in from all levels, from superintendents to McKinney Vento liaisons. My work will focus on developing strategies to work with all these important stakeholders at every stage of the Anchor Community Initiative. As we continue to work towards quality, real-time data, it is imperative to work with schools to ensure unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness are included in the By-Name List. Once we have quality data and we begin working on reducing homelessness, we need to partner with schools to implement improvement projects that will reduce student homelessness.

I’m excited to be part of a project with a data-driven approach. Student homelessness exists in every community in our state, and data will help everyone in our state understand that. I am optimistic that our state cares for young people, and that the community will rally to improve outcomes for all students. It is up to every person in Washington state to improve outcomes for all youth and young adults.

Getting an Initiative Started

When we’re working towards a big goal – like, let’s say, ending youth and young adult homelessness – choosing where to start can be the most challenging step. We ask ourselves, will this first step lead to the change we want to see? Our team learned how to answer this tricky question when Community Solutions trained us on continuous quality improvement.

The concept behind continuous quality improvement is simple: If you want to improve a process, test a small change. If you see improvement, stick with it and test it on a larger scale. If you don’t see improvement, try something else. The key is to clearly define what improvement means and to start with small changes that are easy to implement. For example, an organization with the goal of serving more young people per day could start by testing a new version of their intake questionnaire and measuring the impact this has on their results.

Our expert paper plane engineers

To help us really grasp the concept, Community Solutions gave us an assignment: Make a paper plane and measure how far it flies. Then, make small changes to the plane design with the goal of flying it farther. With our limited knowledge of physics and the laws of aerodynamics, we set out to fly a paper plane farther than any nonprofit ever has before! We’re not sure if we set any records, but we did learn some important lessons about testing changes and measuring impact:

  1. Test one change at a time. We decided that the smaller and lighter a plane, the farther it must fly. So, we cut slits in the plane’s wings and we cut the plane shorter. It was…unsuccessful. And we realized that by testing two changes at once, we couldn’t tell which of these changes was the culprit. Similarly, if an organization tries changing their intake questionnaire AND making it available online at the same time, it would be hard to tell which change impacted results.
  2. Some changes are hard to undo. Once we cut a third of our plane off, there was no going back. If we wanted a full-size plane again, we had to start over. Before testing a change, organizations must consider whether it’s possible to go back on it if it doesn’t lead to improvement.
  3. The importance of iterating. We realized that drastic changes were delaying our process since we had to start over if they didn’t work. We shifted our focus to small, incremental changes. Let’s say that changing the intake questionnaire did help the organization serve more young people per day. Then, making the questionnaire accessible through other channels, like the organization’s website, can be a second, separate change to test.

With continuous quality improvement, choosing where to start becomes less intimidating. It helps us realize that our first step is simply one of many possibilities that we can test. If it leads to results, that’s wonderful! We can continue down that path. But if it doesn’t? That just means it’s time to try something new.

Bringing All Systems Together

One of the most important features of a quality By-Name List is making sure it includes ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Not only does the list tell us how many young people are experiencing homelessness in the community, it also gives us important information about each individual young person, like their location and how long they have been experiencing homelessness.

Creating a comprehensive By-Name List takes a lot of teamwork. No one organization interacts with every young person in need, so the entire community needs to work together to make sure the list is comprehensive. Local school districts, child welfare and juvenile justice systems are key players in reaching quality, real-time data. All Anchor Community teams have been working hard to establish data sharing protocols across different systems, and we caught up with Walla Walla to hear more about the challenges they’ve found and solutions they’re testing to overcome barriers.

“We’re seeing a real need for agencies to adopt their own policies that really connect young people to the By-Name List and the homeless crisis response system,” said Sierra Knutson, Homeless & Housing Coordinator at Walla Walla County Dept. of Community Health and part of the Anchor Community team. “Staff are working really hard every day to serve young people, so it can be difficult to add another task to their long list of responsibilities.”

Aside from finding ways to incorporate the By-Name List into multiple agencies’ work, concerns over data security and privacy are another challenge faced by communities. They’ve heard from young people that keeping their information private is important.

“Young people are afraid that being on the By-Name List means they’ll be reported to the authorities,” said Sierra. “Given our community’s history of placing youth in detention to keep them off the streets, I understand their concern. We’re working on rebuilding that trust.”

When Anchor Communities committed to ending youth and young adult homelessness in their community by 2022, they committed to facing these challenges head on. Walla Walla is no exception, and the community is testing different solutions to overcome these obstacles. To start, they developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will allow any organization that signs on to participate in the By-Name List. The community has obtained signatures from about half of the organizations in their work group, and while the rest wait for approvals the Anchor Community team is wasting no time testing other solutions.

Walla Walla’s new Program Coordinator, Sam!

“We now have the opportunity to add capacity to our team, and I’m hopeful that our new Program Coordinator, Samantha, will be able to really dig deeper into ways that we can collaborate across systems,” said Sierra. “We’re also eager to learn from other organizations in the community, so we will begin shadowing Supportive Services for Veteran Families case managers to build on their best practices for case conferencing.”

It’s inspiring to see all Anchor Communities thinking creatively and working unrelentingly to overcome challenges. We deeply appreciate all the work they do to end youth and young adult homelessness in our state!

Behind the Scenes: Coaching Anchor Communities

Every day, the Anchor Community Initiative is working towards a singular goal – preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness in four communities by the end of 2022. In our Behind the Scenes series, we give you a sneak peek into the Anchor Communities’ work. Last month, we explained why quality, real-time data matters. Today, our Project Director, Elysa, explains how coaching helps communities reach this and all milestones.

Our Anchor Communities are hard at work creating quality By-Name Lists – you may remember this means the list is reliable, regularly updated and includes ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness by name or unique identifier. It’s no easy feat, so all Anchor Communities receive special support to do this work: Coaching.

The Anchor Community Initiative is based on a proven model that has helped twelve communities end veteran and chronic homelessness, Community Solutions’ Built for Zero model. As part of this model, coaches guide communities through the process of achieving quality data and reducing and ending youth and young adult homelessness. Their support is tailored to each community’s specific strengths, challenges and needs. We’ve adopted Built for Zero’s coaching best practices, like helping communities set goals and milestones, meeting with each community in person once a month and connecting teams to subject matter experts as needed. Effective coaches also know that celebrating their teams’ accomplishments and highlighting their progress are really important to keep teams motivated.

Reach a milestone, win a mystery gift – like Sierra in Walla Walla!

 

So how are coaches helping Anchor Community teams build their quality By-Name Lists? Each month, teams take a self-assessment called the Youth and Young Adult (YYA) By-Name List Scorecard, which consists of 43 yes-or-no questions. When teams are able to confidently answer yes to 41 of these questions, they’ve achieved a quality By-Name List. To get started, coaches helped teams bring the right people to the table to answer the scorecard questions.

The scorecard covers the different components of quality data

 

Once teams take the scorecard, they identify focus areas for improvement. Coaches bring forth tools and resources that help teams establish and work towards goals, and they help teams lead effective meetings through the principles of results-based facilitation. For example, the Spokane team chose to work on outreach coverage. They formed a workgroup called the “Outreach Huddle” and used an outreach mapping tool to work on this topic. The workgroup mapped and documented Spokane’s outreach strategy and developed a plan to involve youth and young adults in developing and conducting outreach. Through these activities, Spokane became the first community to confidently say that 100% of their county geography is covered by a documented outreach strategy.

In some ways, an Anchor Community coach  is like a sports team coach. Coaches keep their teams motivated to do the work it takes to succeed. They challenge their teams to push themselves and try new things. And they guide their teams to victory. For our Anchor Community teams, the work is achieving quality, real-time data and testing reduction strategies. Trying new things means pushing against the status quo and changing the ways systems serve young people. Victory means ending youth and young adult homelessness.