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Cascade: No. 65, Spring/Summer 2007

Spotlight on AchieveAbility: Education Is Key to Becoming Self-Sufficient

AchieveAbility is more concerned with building human capital than infrastructure. The community development corporation (CDC) focuses on breaking the cycle of poverty by helping low-income, formerly homeless single parents become self-sufficient.

AchieveAbility provides housing and a wide range of social services to nearly 150 families in West Philadelphia every year. “Housing may be the first service that is provided to the participants in this program, but AchieveAbility’s main focus is education and building life skills so that participants can attain self-sufficiency,” explains Jac Ferber, AchieveAbility’s executive director.

The CDC, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit previously known as Philadelphians Concerned About Housing, was formed in 1981. From the beginning, AchieveAbility focused on developing affordable housing. Over the years, it expanded the range of social services it provided. By the early 1990s, AchieveAbility began to develop a process to measure participants’ progress in becoming self-sufficient, which evolved into a measurement and accountability tool that AchieveAbility uses today.

Social Services

To be accepted into AchieveAbility’s program, participants must agree to counseling, including behavioral health and substance abuse counseling if necessary. Education is an important part of the program, and all participants must take 15 credit hours of classes a year to attain a high school GED, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree. In addition to taking classes, all participants are required to work 25 hours each week.

AchieveAbility helps coordinate transportation and child care for participants so they can work and take classes. It also has a technology center to teach computer skills to participants and their families. Staff members provide home maintenance and nutrition training to the families and bring the high school students on college tours.

Ninety-nine percent of the participants are women, who have an average of two children. Participants are referred to AchieveAbility by homeless shelters, other social service agencies, current program participants, transitional housing services, and word-of-mouth. AchieveAbility does not conduct background checks or criminal record checks on applicants, but it does evaluate the likelihood of applicants’ adhering to the program’s strict education and work requirements before accepting them.

AchieveAbility staff members provide a nutrition workshop to program participants. This workshop is part of the personal development component of the program and will help the participants and their families become self-sufficient.

Ferber notes that “education is a critical component to this program and is the key to permanently breaking the cycle of poverty.” If a participant does not have a high school diploma, AchieveAbility assists him or her in enrolling in GED preparation classes offered by a community college. If a participant has a high school diploma, AchieveAbility provides guidance for enrolling in postsecondary education courses and pays some education costs that are not covered by student grants and loans.

During the last three years, 47 program participants have received a two-year postsecondary degree or its equivalent, 18 have received a high school GED, and six have received a bachelor’s degree. Many of the participants are still in the program; they can remain until they receive a bachelor’s degree.

AchieveAbility measures the success of its program by the number of participants who successfully complete at least a two-year postsecondary degree, believing that participants will be able to support themselves with this amount of education. Of those who have left AchieveAbility’s program in the last three years, 37 percent have completed at least a two-year postsecondary degree or its equivalent.

Measurement and accountability are important aspects of AchieveAbility’s program. The Family Self-Sufficiency Continuum has four components:

  • Education – the participant’s academic achievement, computer literacy, and extracurricular activities
  • Parenting – the children’s academic achievement, computer literacy, extracurricular activities, and preparation for college, if applicable
  • Personal development – the participant’s sobriety, involvement in the community, and health-care and home management skills
  • Financial – the participant’s ability to save and progress toward obtaining a stable, sustainable job that allows the family to live self-sufficiently

Participants receive an overall score based on their progress in each component. To remain in the program, participants must continue to improve their score and move toward self-sufficiency. They must also meet with counselors at least once each quarter to track their progress along the continuum.

Affordable Housing

AchieveAbility has developed over 200 housing units and currently owns and operates 145 units; 105 are permanent units and 40 are HUD-funded transitional units. While AchieveAbility has one 25-unit apartment building, the majority of its rental units are scattered-site row houses. It has used low-income housing tax credits (LIHTCs) to develop over 100 of its rental units. AchieveAbility has been successful in using LIHTCs to develop small scattered-site projects because the team follows the same model for each deal and works with a handful of investors.

AchieveAbility develops approximately 10 new rental and owner-occupied housing units each year, through both rehabilitation and new construction. Its strategy is to develop several housing units on each block. Ferber notes that AchieveAbility wants to have enough units on a block to enable program participants to build relationships with each other and create support systems but does not want to concentrate too many units on the same block. AchieveAbility is also involved in larger community development initiatives in the West Philadelphia area, including working with Partnership CDC on developing the Haddington/Cobbs Creek 2010 plan, a comprehensive community-led plan funded by the Wachovia Regional Foundation to revitalize the Haddington and Cobbs Creek neighborhoods.

For information, contact Jac Ferber of AchieveAbility at (215) 748-8750 or jac.ferber@achieve-ability.org; www.achieve-ability.org.

An AchieveAbility Success Story

Editor’s note: Information for this article was provided by AchieveAbility.

On Christmas Eve in 1994, Diane moved into a home provided by AchieveAbility. At the time, she was homeless with one daughter and one son and was separated from her husband. Diane received counseling, training, and other support during the five years she remained in the AchieveAbility program.

Diane attended first-time homebuyer classes, improved her credit, and saved money during her last year-and-a-half in the program. She left the program in 1999 and purchased the AchieveAbility house in which she had been living. Today, Diane owns a second home and rents out the house she purchased from AchieveAbility.

According to Diane, the affordable housing and other services provided by AchieveAbility, and then owning her own home:

  • Allowed her to get a B.A. in social work from Temple University and an M.A. with a concentration in behavioral psychology from Alvernia College
  • Helped her daughter get better grades because she wasn’t worried about her mother or the family’s stability; she graduated from George Washington University and works for Toll Brothers. Diane’s son graduated from Orleans Technical Institute and works for Westinghouse
  • Allowed her family to live under one roof and support one another

Diane now works as a social worker for the City of Philadelphia. In 2006, she received a commendation for being an excellent worker, having great communication skills, being compassionate, and bringing families together.

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Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia
Community Development Studies and Education Department
Ten Independence Mall
Philadelphia, PA 19106-1574

(215) 574-6458 – phone
(215) 574-2512 – fax
info.communitydevelopment
@phil.frb.org

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