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The city of St. Paul will spend $3 million to help families with children in St. Paul Public Schools pay rent so they can avoid disruptive moves or homelessness.

The city and school district are partnering on Families First, a five-year program that will provide $300 a month for up to 250 families. More than 1,000 St. Paul Public Schools students experience homelessness in a given school year, Superintendent Joe Gothard said.

"We have students in St. Paul that in one school year switch schools three, four, five times … because that's how often their families are moving," Mayor Melvin Carter said at a news conference announcing the program Tuesday. "I can't imagine the interruption that that would create for a family. I can't imagine the interruption that creates for that student. I can't imagine the task that we send our teachers to do when we ask them to teach a whole classroom that has students coming in and out three, four and five times in a school year."

The city is drawing the $3 million from its housing trust fund. The program also relies on a combined $590,000 in grant funds from the Family Housing Fund, McKnight Foundation, Pohlad Foundation and the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation. The St. Paul Public Housing Agency will administer the rent subsidy.

Families must be referred into the program, which is first-come, first-served and will include three cohorts of families for three years each. To be eligible, families must have at least one student enrolled in prekindergarten through third grade at a participating school, have a household income at or below 30% of the area median income — $30,000 a year for a family of four — and spend 40% or more of their income on rent. They also cannot be receiving another housing subsidy.

"We want to make it clear that we want to remove the stigma of our families in need asking for help," Gothard said. "And in this case, we have the support to give that when that help is requested."

Families First is similar to Minneapolis' Stable Homes Stable Schools, a three-year pilot that will serve up to 320 families at 15 participating elementary schools.

Seven St. Paul schools will participate in Families First: Benjamin E. Mays IB World School, Jackson Elementary School, Maxfield Elementary School, Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary, John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary, St. Paul City School and St. Paul Music Academy.

After announcing the program launch on Tuesday, Carter and Gothard stopped by a meeting at John A. Johnson elementary to tell staff members about Families First.

The group of about 30 nodded as Carter described his conversations with teachers, and the challenges facing students who bounce from one school to another.

"Do you think this will help?" he asked.

"Yes," someone replied from the back of the room. "Thank you."

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509