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The Boston College School of Social Work will collaborate with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley on a project aimed at reducing homelessness among children in the Boston Public Schools system.

Supported by a $650,000 institutional challenge grant awarded by the William T. Grant Foundation in cooperation with the Spencer Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, BCSSW and United Way will evaluate the effectiveness of the FamilyAid Boston early intervention and prevention program for homeless BPS students in grades K-8. Some 4,500 students in the BPS—more than eight percent of its total student population—are homeless each year, and another 900 are at risk of homelessness.

BCSSW faculty members involved with the initiative include Indrani Saran, an assistant professor of the practice in behavioral research and biostatistics;  Assistant Professor Vincent Fusaro; part-time faculty member Jessica Johnson; and Donahue and DiFelice Endowed Professor Kirsten Davison, who is the school’s associate dean for research. Other faculty will be involved in the project as it moves forward.

Gautam Yadama

BCSSW Dean Gautam Yadama

BCSSW Dean Gautam Yadama, who will serve as principal investigator of the grant, said the initiative—titled “The Impact of Upstream Prevention of Homelessness on Youth Educational and Developmental Outcomes”—underscores the school’s commitment to addressing the Greater Boston area’s critical social needs, and reflects BCSSW’s history of working with nonprofit, municipal, professional, and other types of organizations to devise innovative solutions that promote positive change.

"To accelerate our local impact, the School of Social Work could not have asked for a better partner than the United Way, given their statewide reach in addressing homelessness and its devastating impacts on the life chances of youth,” he said. “Moreover, the BC-United Way partnership will serve as a template for our work with other community partners to improve the lives of youth. This grant will also provide us with the time and resources needed to pilot a comprehensive and systematic approach to encourage and support faculty-driven research-practice partnerships, from start to finish."

“Providing critical support services to families before they become homeless is an important factor in improving children’s educational outcomes,” said Michael K. Durkin, president and CEO at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. “Partnering with the Boston College School of Social Work on this important project will not only ensure we are helping students and families most effectively, it will also provide us with the research and data to be able to identify what’s working and scale the solutions.”

Some 4,500 students in the BPS—more than eight percent of its total student population—are homeless each year, and another 900 are at risk of homelessness.

BCSSW and United Way will seek to refine, expand, and evaluate the intervention program—piloted this academic year by BPS in partnership with FamilyAid Boston—and create a model for developing agency capacity to participate and use research in collaboration with more schools. BCSSW faculty will provide expertise in intervention research, implementation science, design thinking, and Community-Based System Dynamics modeling to engage key stakeholders in understanding complex systems. The faculty members will design an intervention that addresses the impact of homelessness on youth academic and social emotional outcomes, and play a role in the subsequent implementation of the intervention at scale.  

“The objective will be to create an equitable collaboration across disciplines and stakeholders that are in different informational spaces,” Yadama explained, “resulting in effective interventions that find application in the practice world.”  

Among other strategies, the project will entail using an integrated database to track family and housing stability as well as children’s academic engagement and performance; convene case manager and homeless liaison supervisors in a quarterly community of practice; and use research evidence to create professional development content for frontline nonprofit and school staff.

Yadama also plans to strengthen the infrastructure and recognition for faculty engaged in partnership research, including teaching releases and the provision of a space to house partnership meetings, video conferencing with remote partners, and a venue for learning forums. Working with other administrative offices, Yadama will seek resources for the BCSSW Center for Social Innovation’s expanded vision to support education, research, and practice innovations that strategically leverage systems science, implementation science, data science, and design thinking to adapt, test, and scale evidence-based interventions with community partners.

The BC-United Way partnership envisions a series of project outcomes, some of them short-term—reliable evidence of the most effective indicators of homelessness risk, for example, or more school districts engaged in homelessness prevention efforts. Longer-term outcomes might include a longitudinal study of youth outcomes and housing stability and a state-wide adoption of policies that promote the most effective homelessness interventions. These in turn could lead to increased public support for such interventions, and reduced disparities for youth whose families are at risk for homelessness.

The institutional challenge grants program, according to the William T. Grant Foundation, encourages universities “to develop long-term research-practice partnerships with public-facing agencies and build the capacity of nonprofits and policymakers to use research and evidence to strengthen their ability to improve youth outcomes.”  

Sean Smith | University Communications | May 2020