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William H. Abrashkin

Springfield Housing Authority
Purpose Prize Fellow 2014

This judge left housing court to work for the public housing agency to open avenues to academic success for poor children and their families.

I was a judge in a rough-and-tumble housing court in western Massachusetts for 22 years. Every week, hundreds of low-income, uneducated, unskilled young parents stood before my bench. I grew weary of seeing the damage caused by poverty and disadvantage over and over again.

One day in 2006, I had to evict a young woman and her kids. It hit me hard. ‘This person wasn’t even born when I started this job,’ I thought. ‘There must be something I can do to keep people from getting into these situations in the first place.’

I got my chance to break the cycle in 2008 when, at age 64, I became the Executive Director of the Springfield Housing Authority, a $40 million organization with 27 housing developments, where many female-headed families live below the poverty line.

  • Responsible for 2,397 traditional public housing units located at 27 sites throughout the city

  • 300 of Massachusetts’ poorest children helped with literacy skills vital to school success

  • Half of the children in one summer cohort gained one or more reading levels

We use housing as a platform for social change using a ‘place-based’ approach that brings programs to families where they live. Our focus is childhood literacy because m ost children in public housing fall behind in reading by fourth grade and many eventually drop out of high school. When people don’t graduate from high school, they’re more likely to have low-paying jobs or to be unemployed, rely on public assistance and have unstable lives. That instability is passed onto their children.

We try to break that cycle with childhood literacy programs that change the trajectory of children’s lives. Our Talk/Read/Succeed ! initiative offers educational and support programs in two housing developments and two elementary schools. We support the whole family through group and individual counseling, classes in child development and more. Fourteen local organizations collaborate with us.

Since 2011, about 300 children from kindergarten through grade12 have improved their reading skills. In the summer program, about half of the kids jumped an entire reading level, and some jumped two levels. That’s an impressive feat when most kids lose reading skills over the summer.

Breaking the cycle of disadvantage takes a great deal of hard, complex work over a period of years. But with the right mix of community collaboration and commitment, it can be accomplished. In a real sense, I believe that my life experiences have prepared me for this work, and I could not be more grateful for the encore opportunity to continue to expand it.