Family Scholar House: Educational Program Breaks Cycle of Poverty for Single Parents in Louisville

January 01, 2014

In May 2013, Katherine Barnett graduated from Spalding University with a business degree in accounting and a 3.6 GPA. Not an easy feat for Barnett—a high school dropout who earned her GED (with a perfect score) and attended Eastern Kentucky University for a semester before transferring to Jefferson Community Technical College (JCTC) in Louisville with a 1.7 GPA. Then, while attending JCTC part-time, she became pregnant. Friends referred her to a program called Family Scholar House (FSH), which offers comprehensive and holistic services to single parents enrolled in college.


The Children’s Garden at the Stoddard Johnston Scholar House Campus | photos courtesy Marian Development Group LLC

As a pre-resident student (those receiving some services but waiting for housing), Barnett received an educational evaluation conducted by FSH and discovered that she has dyslexia, a learning disability. Her poor performance in school was attributed to this disability, and the discovery also revealed the need for her to attend a college with shorter semesters because of her limited attention span. Barnett enrolled in Spalding University, which offers six-week courses. She used to think she wasn’t smart, but once she knew about her learning disability and received proper educational tools, she was able to soar. During her entire time at FSH, Barnett maintained a 4.0 GPA. Today, she is the program manager for the Louisville Asset Building Coalition.

“I believe they (FSH) are so successful because they believe in people who don’t believe in themselves,” Barnett said. “It is already difficult to go to school and have a family. The only thing I know that makes it easier is FSH. You have to do a lot to be in the program. You have to be involved. You have to do your volunteer work, meet with your case worker, meet with your academic advisors. But all of that helps you in the process of graduating and getting all of the advantages that you can’t get on your own. To have all that housed in one spot, so you don’t have to go to 50 different buildings or not know where to go—on top of the housing aspect—[is critical] to get you through college with a child.”

Eventually Barnett became a resident at the Downtown Scholar House Campus—currently one of four FSH campuses in Louisville—which is in close proximity to Spalding University. She praised the support that she received from her social worker and academic advisor, as well as the support of the other students, who offered to watch each other’s children so their classmates could focus on studying. “It’s really hard to find support like that. They know what you’re going through because they are going through it, too,” Barnett explained.

FSH was founded in 1995 as Project Women by representatives of six orders of nuns who recognized the power of education in changing the course of lives; they had a mission to help single parents earn college degrees. Cathe Dykstra, FSH’s president and CEO (although she prefers the title “Chief Possibility Officer”), joined the program in 2005, when it consisted of four mothers and four staff members. In 2008, the name was officially changed to Family Scholar House Inc. Dykstra accelerated the program’s growth by expanding services and outreach to mothers and children. That growth has propelled the program. In 2012, FSH’s 10 staff members served 2,023 families, 3,027 children and 238 pregnant women.

With the help of Marian Development Group, FSH has been able to build their four Louisville campuses. In 2008, in partnership with the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development, they opened the Louisville Scholar House Campus with 56 apartments, a full-service academic services center and a child development center. The Downtown Scholar House Campus opened in 2011 with 54 apartments; an academic services center was completed in 2012. The Stoddard Johnston Scholar House Campus opened in December 2011 with 67 families and a full academic services center. The Parkland Family Scholar House Campus opened in August 2013. All units are Section 8 apartments; residents are required to pay 30 percent of their earned income toward their rent. Before moving in, residents are required to take four sessions of financial education.


Typical kitchen in a Family Scholar House apartment

“The expansion of our physical sites has been driven by the needs of our families,” said Dykstra. “We are not a housing program. We are an educational program with a housing component.” FSH is currently housing 215 families—208 single mothers and 7 single fathers. But the program serves 10 times that many through nonresidential services. Every time a new campus opens and FSH receives publicity, the waiting list increases. There are plans for additional campuses in Louisville.

“Over the last few years, we’ve had interest from other communities in replicating our model and very positive feedback from the Department of Education about the comprehensive and holistic nature of our model. That has led to the development of the affiliate program. Our first affiliate just opened in Pikeville, Ky., and additional programs are coming—not just in our region, but nationally. We provide technical assistance, and that cost is covered by the affiliate,” explained Dykstra.

“We really believe that our model is so powerful that it is important that we share what we’ve learned—best practices as well as mistakes made that can be avoided with some technical assistance,” she continued.

The typical cost of building a new campus ranges from $9.5–$11.5 million, according to Jake Brown, a developer. Factors such as location and whether the land is donated or acquired can impact the cost of development. “Generally, we utilize the LIHTC [low-income housing tax credit], historic tax credits, local or state funding sources for HOME dollars, or affordable housing trust dollars. In some cases, we will utilize mixed financing through a local public housing agency. We’ve done that on two projects in Louisville,” Brown explained. FSH is a very intentional program and is not easy. But every requirement is paired with support to help participants complete that goal. Students must meet with both an academic advisor and a case manager twice a month (one visit with the case manager in the office and the other at home); attend peer support once a month; be a full-time student at all times; maintain a 2.0 GPA; volunteer in the community a minimum of four hours a month; save a minimum of $10 at least once a month to their own savings account, called a Future Fund, which is administered by FSH; and have their children; and have their children enrolled in age-appropriate education. Each apartment is inspected every month.

Dykstra notes that FSH’s success rate is way above expectations for a program of its kind. The organization boasts a success rate, defined as graduating from an accredited college or university, of almost 86 percent; 75 percent of graduates exit with stable employment, 61 percent continue graduate studies, and 98 percent complete the program without a repeat pregnancy. Within 90 days of graduation, two-thirds of graduates are off public subsidy. Although a 2.0 GPA is required, the average is 3.0; in the spring 2013 semester, 23 participants earned a perfect 4.0 GPA, and 41 participants earned a 3.5-3.9.

“Employers love our graduates,” Dykstra said. “They have a tremendous work ethic; they are exactly who you want in your work environment. That kind of dedication and motivation while also raising children and working says a lot about who that student-parent is. Regardless of what they majored in or what they want to do … who they are is what matters most. They also are fabulous role models for their children.” Dykstra’s leadership and ability to articulate the FSH story so well are contributing factors to the program’s success, according to Adam Hall, FSH board member and Fifth Third Bank assistant vice president. “She knows every detail of the organization, inside and out, so it is pretty compelling to anyone outside the organization, especially funders who like data,” he said.

Hall added that the program is comprehensive in the way it helps the people that FSH serves. Once parents become part of the program, they have access to all the resources they may need to navigate through college to a first job after graduation. “If you equip people with resources, low- and moderate-income people from distressed communities can succeed,” he stated.

Hall attributes the success of FSH in helping to attract the best board members from across sectors—law, business, education, banking and high-level competencies. At every board meeting, a participant shares their journey to FSH and explains how it has changed their life. Hall credits these stories with enabling the board to set aside petty disagreements, allowing them to focus on work that needs to be done.

FSH plans to continue its expansion, helping many more single parents graduate from college and continue on a successful life journey.

Building Living room Reading room Study hall

Clockwise from top left: Exterior of Stoddard Johnston Scholar House; Apartment living room; The Commons; Reading Room

About the Author
Woman with dark hair in business attire
Faith Weekly

Faith Weekly is a community development advisor for the St. Louis Fed's Louisville Zone. Read more about Faith's work.

Woman with dark hair in business attire
Faith Weekly

Faith Weekly is a community development advisor for the St. Louis Fed's Louisville Zone. Read more about Faith's work.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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