It probably comes as no surprise that reducing the stress of living in poverty, providing tutoring and addressing social-emotional challenges can help at-risk high school students succeed in the classroom.
Still, it’s instructive to see the outcomes from testing the hypothesis: Can monetary incentives to inadequately housed students — with reasonable, goal-oriented strings attached — change the trajectory of their academic lives? It’s an important question in New Mexico, given the number of people who depend on government assistance to get by.
We now have some sense of the potential of providing financial assistance to high school students who are homeless or experiencing some form of housing insecurity, thanks to a pilot program designed and run by New Mexico Appleseed and funded by Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, which has a permanent endowment to support public schools in the seven-county region surrounding the lab.
The foundation gave about $120,000 each to the Cuba Independent School District and the West Las Vegas School District to cover tutoring, family stipends and costs for district staff.
“We really wanted to target those populations that we felt were suffering the most during the pandemic,” LANL Foundation President and CEO Jenny Parks says.
For eight months during the 2020-21 school year, the pilot program provided $500 every month to 53 qualifying high school students. The results are promising.
Appleseed’s report on the project concludes that the monetary incentives to the targeted students in the pilot program increased engagement in school, tutoring and emotional support offerings.
“When students are unable to meet their basic needs on a regular basis, it can be next to impossible to make school a priority,” the report states. “Offering families, or the students, a monthly stipend in exchange for their students’ participation in school is a way to reward their continued participation while allowing the students to better meet their basic needs.”
There was considerable consternation about attaching conditions to the cash. Appleseed consulted with an ethicist before including requirements for students to attend school 90% of the time and complete 90% of their class work. Students also had to meet every week for check-in and tutoring sessions. All are weighted to helping students succeed academically.
And while Appleseed Founder Jenny Ramo says the requirements “really weighed heavily on me, because people deserve to have their basic needs met, no matter what, period,” the conditions had no negative effects. Fully 100% of the families thought the program requirements were fair and the stipends helpful. Students almost universally saw their grades improve by the end of the program and benefited from peace of mind from having their basic needs better taken care of.
“I really think that it was a working program, because it allowed the kids to not have to worry about adult situations,” West Las Vegas School District Superintendent Christopher Gutierrez says. “This program gave them a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel to where they could be kids and focus on them and what they need to do to maybe, eventually, get out there and be their own adults someday.”
Ramo says the pilot was able to show that providing conditional cash to students in need did help their academic outcomes, something she hopes could spur lawmakers to consider replicating the pilot statewide.
“We are hoping the Legislature steps in, maybe for next year, and really puts aside money for cash transfers,” she says. “We would recommend the homeless population, inadequately housed population, because they are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and they’re the most likely to succeed with financial help.”
With safeguards in place, it could be money very well spent. Lawmakers should fully vet expanding the program.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.