Education Lab

Small steps that add up

Australia’s Geelong Project steers students away from homelessness and dropping out before their situation becomes a crisis. It all starts with a survey.

Australia’s Geelong Project steers students away from homelessness and dropping out before their situation becomes a crisis. It all starts with a survey.

Story by Neal Morton | Videos by Lauren Frohne | Photos by Ellen M. Banner

Feb. 9, 2020 at 6:00 am

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab.

GEELONG, Australia — Over the next month, as schools here begin a new year, the staff at seven campuses will interrupt homerooms, ask students to put away assignments and hand each one of them a nearly 100-question survey.

Teachers and translators will help explain the questions, some of them deeply personal: How often do you go to bed hungry? When was the last time you crashed on a friend’s couch? Do you feel safe at home?

Map of southern Australia with Geelong highlighted

Source: Esri Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times

The top of the survey acknowledges how intrusive it may feel: “Your answers to various questions will be treated in strict confidence,” the bold, black print states against a pink background. “A few questions might seem a little personal, but please have the confidence to answer honestly.”

There’s a reason for the prying queries: prevention, a chance to steer young people away from dropping out of school or becoming homeless.

“Youth homelessness in Australia and around the world is just such a massive issue,” Kylie Hodgson said. “And there just has to be something to be done to stop it.”

Like Seattle, this port city has struggled to absorb new workers and residents. A popular waterfront park straddles Geelong’s homeless youth shelter and its first pair of gleaming apartment and office towers.

But there’s another, less-gleaming side.

Twice a week, Hodgson drives past a shuttered Ford factory and into Corio, a neighborhood identified as one of Australia’s most disadvantaged. The program worker meets with dozens of students at Northern Bay College, a relatively diverse campus serving students between grades 9 and 12 that became an early adopter in a regional effort to keep young people off the streets and in school.

The approach, which has shown early success, will soon find a new home in King County. The Tukwila School District plans to launch its own pilot later this year; others may follow. It’s already reached the U.S. Last fall, about 1,700 students took a first round of surveys in a suburban school district west of Minneapolis.

Seattle considered joining the local pilot, but so far has demurred from committing to participate. The discussion comes as educators and advocates across Washington are pushing the Legislature to spend billions for more counselors and nurses.

The idea sounds simple: Early intervention. The student surveys trigger a series of solutions — from group counseling to emergency aid — designed to prevent young people from teetering into homelessness.

Confronted with rising homelessness, service providers and community leaders in Geelong developed an early intervention approach embedded in schools. The results have compelled U.S. school districts to adopt it. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

The Geelong Project, as it’s known here, also reveals who’s on the brink of disengaging from school entirely. It’s a critical piece, because research shows young adults who didn’t finish high school are 4.5 times more likely to experience homelessness.

“Think about it as a seesaw,” said Anne-Marie Ryan, who leads the Geelong Region Local Learning and Employment Network.

On one side, she said, are kids still in school, with families. But students who dropped out or left home tip the other side down. “Our goal is to reweight the seesaw with a lot more early intervention,” Ryan said, “and over time we’ve seen the balance tip the other way.”

The simplicity is deceptive — especially given the urgency of addressing homelessness back home.

Geelong, a port city of about 250,000, has struggled to absorb new workers and residents, many of whom are coming from nearby Melbourne.

“Not a quick fix”

In Seattle, where images of needles and tents have come to symbolize the region’s stark inequality, the debate around homelessness often focuses on housing. Some call for increasing police enforcement to clear encampments.

On a recent visit to Geelong (pronounced Jeh-long), a bayside town of about 250,000 where many work in health care, manufacturing or retail, the songs of Australia’s native birds echoed through streets that seemed clear of “rough sleepers,” as they’re known here, over the course of two weeks. City parks — which families filled during a public holiday for a horse race — also appeared deserted overnight.

A housing development is being built south of downtown Geelong, Australia. Many people are moving from other areas of Australia to Geelong because it is less expensive and there are job opportunities, so construction is booming. But the shortage of housing is also contributing to a growing homeless problem.
A housing development is being built south of downtown Geelong, Australia. Many people are moving from other areas of Australia to Geelong because it is less expensive and there are job opportunities, so construction is booming. But the shortage of housing is also contributing to a growing homeless problem.
Downtown Geelong, Australia, has a bustling shopping and restaurant district.
Downtown Geelong, Australia, has a bustling shopping and restaurant district.

Few residents were aware of The Geelong Project — a program that, when successful, prevents the type of homelessness that Seattle’s used to seeing. It costs about $275,000 to $350,000 (U.S.) annually.

Since 2013, the number of youth entering Geelong’s homeless system has been sliced nearly in half. And dropouts have also declined, by 20% as of 2018.

Early outcomes of The Geelong Project

Since 2013, the number of dropouts — or early leavers, as they’re known in Australia — has fallen at the three schools where The Geelong Project launched that year. The city saw a steeper decline in the number of young people in the target age range (12-18 years) entering Geelong’s homeless system.

Dropouts

3 pilot schools

0 50 100 150 ’13 ’14 ’15 ’16 Geelong Project starts

All other schools

0 50 100 150 ’13 ’14 ’15 ’16

12- to 20-year-olds entering the homeless system

12–18 yrs

0 100 200 ’09 ’10 ’11 ’12 ’13 ’14 ’15 ’16 ’17 Geelong Project starts

19–20 yrs

0 100 200 ’09 ’10 ’11 ’12 ’13 ’14 ’15 ’16 ’17

Source: David MacKenzie, University of South Australia

Hilary Fung and Neal Morton / The Seattle Times

“The thing with early intervention: It’s not a quick fix. It’s something that is quite slow,” said Sandy Meessen, team leader of The Geelong Project. “It’s taken six years for us to see that.”

Those results are still early. The Victoria state education department paid to expand The Geelong Project to four new schools last year, and has commissioned an independent evaluation. But the initial outcomes inspired the program’s spread across Australia; to Ontario, Canada; and now, the U.S.

Still, the program has skeptics.

In Geelong, some educators wonder if it duplicates their work. In King County, advocates question what relevant solutions a city as homogeneous as Geelong, where 3 in 4 residents cite English, Australian, Irish, Scottish or German ancestry, can offer a more diverse population.

“I’m thrilled if the (Geelong) region has found what works for them,” said Marshaun Barber, executive director of All Seattle Kids Home. She wondered how the model accounts for racial disparities in America’s housing and criminal-justice systems.

“These factors are sadly, uniquely American and in some ways uniquely Washington,” Barber said. “Any comprehensive strategy has to accommodate for that.”

More about The Geelong Project

But as local leaders prepare to bet on an idea that seems promising Down Under, they can learn from its rocky start in Geelong — and they’ll have to rethink three decades of U.S. federal policy that largely intervenes only after people lose their housing.

Federal law doesn’t allow housing agencies to help families who “couch surf” with friends or relatives, leaving close to 37,000 homeless students in Washington without much of a safety net.

“The notion that we have to wait so long, it’s both immoral and ineffective,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit working to overcome homelessness through education. “And it’s failing in spectacular fashion.”

Amber Gibson, an early-intervention worker with The Geelong Project, chats with a teacher at North Geelong Secondary College in Geelong, Australia, during a multicultural festival at the school.
Amber Gibson, an early-intervention worker with The Geelong Project, chats with a teacher at North Geelong Secondary College in Geelong, Australia, during a multicultural festival at the school.

“A bespoke response”

It was 2011, and rising homelessness in Melbourne spilled into Geelong, driven by rising rents and a lack of public housing.

At the time, about 4% of Geelong’s youth experienced homelessness. Only 2% of young people who secured short-term housing returned to their families’ homes, and up to 250 dropped out of school each year. Youth unemployment topped 30%.

That prompted local service providers and community leaders to convene, and over two years, debate solutions.

“Everyone invited to that talking table thought their organization was the most important piece,” Ryan said. “You can’t actually deal in pieces. You have to deal in wholes.”

They reached a common understanding of the problem: Young people could only get help once they were in crisis. And they had to navigate a patchwork of agencies, with mental-health support divorced from job training or rental assistance for their families.

The group arrived at a potential solution: Form a community coalition, one that connects schools and “upstream” services through a central clearinghouse. To find the students in need, they designed the schoolwide surveys.

How The Geelong Project works

In Geelong, after students take a survey, intervention workers interview those deemed to be most at risk and refer them to services if needed.

STEP 1

Survey all students. Ask about their life at school, home and everywhere else.

STEP 2

Score each student’s responses to identify anyone at risk of entering the homeless system or dropping out.

STEP 3

Reconcile the survey-generated list of at-risk students with the school’s own list and attendance records.

STEP 3a

School staff produce their own list of students they believe are at risk.

STEP 3b

School staff follow up on surveys with absent students.

STEP 4

The Geelong Project team conducts short interviews with identified students.

STEP 5

The team reviews each student’s case and discusses recommendations.

STEP 6

Early intervention workers refer students and their families to wraparound services, such as counseling, tutoring or emergency assistance.

Source: The Geelong Project

Hilary Fung and Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times

After the survey, a team from a local youth agency interviews students through a universal screener, scores each response and ranks them on three tiers of risk.

The lowest level prompts occasional check-ins and group sessions on bullying, domestic violence and self-esteem. Students at the top tier get paired with program workers like Hodgson, who meet them weekly and find the existing services — rental assistance, therapy, tutors — to keep them off the streets and in school.

“It’s a bespoke response to your individual need,” said Northern Bay principal Ken Massari, who welcomed The Geelong Project to his campus seven years ago.

Amber Gibson, left, an early-intervention worker, works with Tina Doyle, a
Amber Gibson, left, an early-intervention worker, works with Tina Doyle, a "well-being team" leader at North Geelong Secondary College in Geelong, Australia.
Students at Australia's North Geelong Secondary College wear apparel from their home countries as they march in a parade as part of a multicultural festival.
Students at Australia's North Geelong Secondary College wear apparel from their home countries as they march in a parade as part of a multicultural festival.

A graduate of Northern Bay himself, Massari shared a history lesson of the surrounding neighborhood: When the Ford plant opened after World War I, veterans streamed into the sleepy tourist town for work in Geelong’s growing industrial hub. Families, including his, could afford new homes close to Corio Bay — which the local Aboriginal people called “Jillong.”

Today, many refugees and asylum-seekers live in those homes. And the children they send to school, Massari said, often carry generational poverty and trauma to class. So too with Northern Bay’s 150 or so Aboriginal students.

“They don’t call their life poverty,” Massari said. But, “it’s often compounded, that disadvantage upon disadvantage.”

Emma McKie, an early-intervention response intern, speaks to Northern Bay College students and counselors about bullying.
Emma McKie, an early-intervention response intern, speaks to Northern Bay College students and counselors about bullying.

The Geelong Project in action

Down the hall from Massari’s office, a poster declared, “What you say in here … stays in here.”

It hovered over Hodgson’s head in an office crammed with stacks of chairs and desks. Her phone buzzed with a text message from a 16-year-old who contemplated running away from home.

“Don’t be surprised if I just shut down on you,” the text warned. The young woman’s message didn’t surprise Hodgson, who had met with her weekly for months.

The point, she said, is that unlike parents or teachers, Geelong staffers aren’t authority figures.

Kylie Hodgson builds relationships with young people as part of her work as an early-intervention specialist. The Geelong Project aims to steer  students away from homelessness or dropping out of school.
Kylie Hodgson builds relationships with young people as part of her work as an early-intervention specialist. The Geelong Project aims to steer students away from homelessness or dropping out of school.

“We’re sort of just someone that’s just there for that young person and whatever they want,” Hodgson added. “It’s just a series of lots of little things that hopefully build up.”

This visit, Hodgson pulled out a drawing of a bucket overflowing with a rainbow of scribbled bars. The student had shaded each bar with colors that represented the different, escalating crises in her life: An abusive father who came and went. Overdue schoolwork. Nightmares that kept her awake.

The latest development: Dad left again, possibly for good.

“It sucks, all that stuff about Dad,” Hodgson said.

“We can’t change that,” the young woman replied.

With Hodgson’s help, the student had recently gotten back on track to graduate on time. She learned to balance the demands of work and home and school. She even started dreaming of how she would spend a gap year before university.

“It’s an exciting time for you, despite being a bad year,” Hodgson said.

Hodgson steered the conversation to Mom.

The young woman fidgeted as she responded, crossing her ankles back and forth. She had grown estranged from her mother, who she said wouldn’t acknowledge her father’s threats. Now, the pair was talking again, and the daughter even considered asking her mother for permission to take the art therapy Hodgson recommended.

“You don’t want to leave anymore!” Hodgson exclaimed. “That’s really good … Think how you’ve come a long way.”

The student indulged a brief smile, grabbed her backpack and headed back to class.

At Northern Bay College’s Goldsworthy campus, students are encouraged to visit the well-being center staffed by a team of social workers and counselors that address a range of issues affecting their day-to-day lives.

A foundation of support

Long before he joined The Geelong Project last year, Chris Singh learned what can happen to young people who don’t get help.

Singh previously was a caseworker in Melbourne, the state capital about 50 miles away, where he tried to support adults coming out of jail and back into society. But he came to believe that was too late.

“The older people get, the harder it is for them to change,” Singh said. “When you’re an adult … you’re sort of thrown to the wolves.”

So he started working in schools and oversaw what’s known in Australia as a well-being team. Backed by state funding, principals fill each team with full-time social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses and first-aid workers.

(Washington state provides schools with a fraction of the funding for even one well-being position. A high school would need to enroll 40,000 students to generate enough money to hire a social worker; 85,714 for a school psychologist.)

Paying for school support staff

In Geelong, schools fill state-funded well-being teams with social workers, counselors, doctors, nurses and first-aid workers. Washington state, meanwhile, provides schools with less funding for most well-being positions.

Foster High School in Tukwila has 889 students. According to current funding rules, the state would provide a school of its size with the salaries for:

three guidance counselors — who often end up taking on other roles — and 77% of a fourth

14% of a school nurse

2% of a social worker

1% of a psychologist

Source: Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Hilary Fung and Neal Morton / The Seattle Times

Still, Singh said, the well-being teams can only do so much.

“They have limited capacity to do more outreach sort of things because they are putting out the spot fires in schools,” he said.

Now Singh splits his time as an early-intervention worker between two Geelong schools. After learning of a 16-year-old who had missed weeks of school, Singh took the young woman out for hot chocolate. They discussed her home life, a conversation that prompted him to call protective services and connect her with counseling.

Another student broke his bicycle, so Singh found him a replacement.

“We have the capacity to go out and sort of take young people who absolutely hate school to do things that (aren’t) in a school setting,” Singh said.

The federal government also pitches in, with cash assistance for low-income youth and free or low-cost access to mental-health services. Still, waitlists across Geelong and Australia often extend for months, said Laura Vecchio, an early-intervention worker focused on mental health.

“Their anxiety and depression only gets bigger” as they wait, Vecchio said. “Early intervention helps them get out of bed, helps them get the services so their mental health doesn’t become so obvious to the outside.”

During what she described as a typical Tuesday, Vecchio encountered a steady stream of students entering Northern Bay’s well-being center.

One young woman approached with red eyes. After helping her through a romantic crisis, Vecchio guided a pair of boys into a quiet room to talk them out of a looming fight.

“What’s the surprise now?” she asked as another student knocked on the door.

But the 16-year-old didn’t have a problem. He wanted to share some artwork, a practice Vecchio encouraged to keep his thoughts positive.

Before Vecchio’s assistance, the teen said, he often spent his time outside school alone in his room, lights off. Anxiety and depression made it difficult to maintain a job and friends.

He credited Vecchio for teaching him to work through his abandonment issues and the importance of finding a role model after his father left.

“The voices in my head, I don’t hear them any longer,” the student said. “I don’t need to hide in the dark anymore.”

Geelong's Eastern Beach public swimming pool, surrounded by a wooden walkway, is a popular recreation area at the edge of Corio Bay. It is adjacent to downtown Geelong, where the city’s first high-rise towers are being built, a signal of rapid population growth.

What could get lost in translation?

Unlike the staff at Northern Bay, school administrators who recently started working with The Geelong Project can’t yet pinpoint ways in which it has been a game-changer.

One principal described it as glitzy, noting it’s too early to assess its value. A social worker at another campus warned of “the hype,” saying “we’d survive without it.”

But in a longer conversation she welcomed the resources it brings.

“The well-being office is open for the day-to-day crisis stuff,” she said. “We can’t interview 1,000 kids and pick out the ones who won’t seek us out for help. We can’t take them off campus for the help we can’t provide here.”

Without the well-being teams and that foundation of support, could The Geelong Project work to curb long-term instability in King County? Or is our structure simply not compatible with an idea that hinges on making existing parts work better together?

“It’s not copy and paste,” said Matt Morton, a research fellow with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. He’s leading the U.S. pilots of what will be called the Upstream Project and cautioned against scrapping the model because it may not reach everyone.

“We try to make very clear that this isn’t a silver bullet,” Morton said, adding that he’s heartened to see the city and county taking strides to help people and youth in particular who are homeless.

Geelong, Australia, is a port city of about 250,000. The popular Eastern Beach public swimming area is surrounded by a two-level, shark-proof promenade.
Geelong, Australia, is a port city of about 250,000. The popular Eastern Beach public swimming area is surrounded by a two-level, shark-proof promenade.

In contrast to Australian schools, the U.S. has more bureaucracy.

In King County, school districts have central offices and elected school boards. In Australia, there’s just the state and the principals, making it easier to act without prolonged debate and administrative hurdles.

Duffield, of SchoolHouse Connection, said in a place like Seattle, “the cynicism and the state of affairs” could be a barrier. And in King County, the Upstream Project has come in fits and starts.

Seattle Public Schools was initially slated to join. At the time, School Board member and now-President Zachary DeWolf was a program manager with All Home, the county’s coordinating agency for homelessness, which was supposed to lead on the Upstream Project.

Emails obtained by The Seattle Times show DeWolf’s enthusiasm for the pilot proved a difficult sell for Superintendent Denise Juneau, who worried about the potential conflict of interest DeWolf could have posed. Other district officials raised concerns about the cost of administering the new program. Talks crumbled.

The Geelong Project: What schools ask students

The 93-question survey asks students about their home life, experience at school and well-being. Here’s a sample of the questions.

22 questions about housing/financial stability

Do you feel safe at home?

  • Yes, definitely
  • Sometimes not safe
  • Often not safe

Over the past 12 months, at any time, have you stayed with friends/relatives when you really did not want to be at home with your parent(s) and family?

  • Yes
  • No

22 questions about school experience

I regularly "wag" school (i.e. miss school without permission).

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Unsure
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

If I was able to get a job, I would leave school now.

  • Strongly Agree
  • Agree
  • Unsure
  • Disagree
  • Strongly Disagree

46 questions about physical/mental well-being

I usually take things in my stride. (This means: I deal with things calmly and I don't let things bother me too much.)

Strongly Disagree > > > > Strongly Agree

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7

My life has meaning.

Strongly Disagree > > > > Strongly Agree

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7

Note: The remaining questions asked for basic biographical information.

Sources: Australian Index of Adolescent Development, Seattle Times analysis

Hilary Fung and Neal Morton / The Seattle Times

Instead, the district’s manager of homeless programs said Seattle Public Schools (SPS) would focus on a partnership with the city, one which helps students and families in crisis rather than preventing them from ending up homeless to begin with. In a statement, Tyra Williams, SPS student support-services manager, pointed to the district’s hiring more staff to support homeless youth; services and referrals for that population; and partnerships with several nonprofits and philanthropies that focus on identifying risk factors.

Now, Schoolhouse Washington — the educational arm of Seattle-based nonprofit Building Changes — will launch the Upstream pilot in Tukwila.

Other school districts in South King County had flirted with the program, but want to see it work elsewhere before taking the plunge, said Mehret Tekle-Awarun, senior manager of education strategy for Building Changes.

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“I’m hopeful Tukwila can provide a model that represents all their students,” she said.

A bidding process will open soon to see which community organizations can hire the early-intervention workers and connect wraparound services to students identified as at risk. And it’s that element — tapping existing services and providers — that quelled Tekle-Awarun’s initial worries.

“This is a collaborative, connective way of working together, not a prescribed method or that traditional, white savior approach,” she said.

And, any local pilot will have to navigate America’s strong student-privacy laws: Who can access responses on surveys about youths’ home lives?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is time.

“Everybody who lives in our region would love to see a solution that sticks,” said Barber, with All Seattle Kids Home. “That’s the anger here: We chase after something for a few years, aren’t happy with it and shift direction again.”

Students from Northern Bay College in Geelong, Australia, walk to a nearby center for relaxation and discussions as part of The Geelong Project.
Students from Northern Bay College in Geelong, Australia, walk to a nearby center for relaxation and discussions as part of The Geelong Project.
Credits

Reporter: Neal Morton

Video journalist: Lauren Frohne

Photographer : Ellen M. Banner

Story editor: Joy Resmovits

Photo editor: Fred Nelson

Graphics editor: Emily M. Eng

Designer and developer: Hilary Fung

Engagement editor: Anne Hillman

Project coordinator: Laura Gordon

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