From the outside, the Family Scholar House (FSH), sitting in the shadow of the University of Louisville at 420 W. Lee Street, looks like an average university dormitory. But what goes on inside changes lives. The mission of FSH is to end the cycle of poverty among families by offering comprehensive support to single parents as they pursue college degrees. Participants receive assistance with transportation, childcare, housing, academic counseling and financial aid. It is a global approach designed to help students overcome obstacles to graduation and improve life for the next generation of their families.
“Seventy-three percent of our participants are first-generation college students,” explains Cathe Dystra, FSH president and CEO. “In May, we graduated 11 students – 10 women and one man. Between them, they had 16 kids. All 16 of the children said they wanted to go to college themselves. The likelihood is that we are raising the bar for the second generation. They are aspiring to a higher level of education than their parents had originally planned for themselves.”
The Family Scholar House is a collaboration between Metro government, which provides some grant money; the University of Louisville, which provides space and some staff; several private foundations that contribute to FSH’s $700,000 operating budget; and the federal government, which provides tax credits for construction of buildings. FSH’s Old Louisville campus includes a 56-unit apartment complex housing 55 women and one man. All apartments include computers, a T-3 Internet connection, and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) service donated by U of L. They also have washers and dryers donated by General Electric.
FSH participants attend U of L, Bellarmine University, Spaulding University, Indiana University Southeast, Ivy Tech, Jefferson Community and Technical College (JCTC), and Lindsay Wilson College. FSH also has programs in Carrollton and Southern Indiana that provide assistance and counseling to single-parents seeking degrees. In January, FSH will open another apartment complex, with 54 units, adjacent to the Center for Women and Families near downtown Louisville. There are also plans for a third 57-unit building on Bradley Street off Eastern Parkway.
The idea for FSH grew out of Project Women, a program Dystra directed for the Center for Women and Families. In four years, Project Women helped 38 families move from shelters into homes, but Dystra said she was personally frustrated that not all of the families were able to maintain their upward mobility.
“What I found was that the ones with the best likelihood of staying in their homes were the ones with college degrees,” she explains. “We know that intuitively, but it was a revelation seeing it again and again. When you have a college degree, even in this economy, you have more opportunities.”
Meghan Calloway, a primary education major, says FSH has been a life raft for her and her 2-year-old son, Kai Cannady. Due to her mother’s home going into foreclosure, Calloway was on the verge of homelessness in 2008, when, out of desperation, she applied to FSH.
“At first I was discouraged because there were 90 people on the waiting list before me,” says Calloway, 21. “But I prayed about it, I wrote a letter, and I got in. When I first moved in, I didn’t really have a lot. I had my TV, my bed and Kai’s bed. I didn’t have the living room suite that I have now, or the dining room suite that I have. Everything was donated after I moved in.”
Calloway started out at JCTC, but she starts classes at U of L in the fall. While in school, Kai attends the Early Learning Campus (ELC), which is staffed by students from U of L’s College of Education and Human Development. The ELC uses the Reggio Emilia approach to education. Similar to the Montessori school, Reggio Emilia allows students to learn by following their own interests.
“It’s a requirement that Kai go to the Early Learning Campus, but it does not have to be,” Calloway says. “I would want him to be there anyway. The teachers there really care about Kai. They are not just trying to keep him occupied. If he is a little off one day, they know it. They do things I don’t see at other centers. He’s learning sign language and Spanish. He’s developed leaps and bounds since he’s been there.”
Many of the FSH participants work, and they have co-payments for childcare and other services provided to them. However, Dystra said FSH does help with any overages the participants cannot afford. FSH currently has 637 people on its waiting list who are referred by Metro government, local universities, area homeless shelters, and sometimes current program participants. Dystra says the key to the program’s success has been the ability of a variety of public and private entities to collaborate without getting into turf battles.
“People have tried to do something similar (to FSH), but where they struggle is in the collaboration,” Dystra says. “It’s hard to figure out ‘What do I own?’ Periodically, I’ll hear someone refer to U of L’s Child Development Center or U of L’s Family Scholar House. It’s not, but it’s fine with me when people say that because U of L is such an active partner. When we all do things together, we really have the opportunity to do something more meaningful than any of us can do on our own.”