Opinion: How School-on-Wheels offers hope for homeless students

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

SOLUTIONS: One idea blossomed into year-round tutoring in six counties – and it’s making a difference.

The little girl was 6 years old, and life hadn’t been kind to her.

When Catherine Meek walked into a homeless shelter for their tutoring session, she found the child hiding under a desk.

No questions asked, the volunteer joined her on the floor and began reading to her. For an hour a week, the session would allow the girl to be just a kid, getting the assistance she needed, and for at least a moment forgetting about her circumstances.

The space remained their meeting spot for six sessions until, one day, Meek walked in to find the girl sitting at the desk waiting for her.

“I had, I remember, the biggest smile on my face, and she did too,” Meek says. “I think even at that young, vulnerable age she understood that something had changed.”

Meek lights up recalling that moment – one of her greatest success stories as a volunteer tutor for School on Wheels, a nonprofit addressing educational needs of children K-12 who are experiencing homelessness.

Recently, Meek – now executive adviser to the organization – attended that no-longer-little-girl’s wedding after they reconnected through social media.

A brainchild of the late Agnes Stevens, a retired schoolteacher, School on Wheels began in 1993 when Stevens began tutoring children living in shelters on Skid Row, an area of Los Angeles known for its large homeless population.

In the next few years, she formalized her efforts, recruited more volunteers and grew the organization with the help of Meek, who joined in 1999.

The organization grew steadily, partnering with shelters, school districts, motels and libraries – even reaching those living in cars, in foster homes and on the streets.

With year-round operations in six counties, the organization reached about 2,000 homeless students during the pandemic.

School on Wheels doesn’t get into the students’ backgrounds; instead, it focuses solely on assessing educational needs – like a fourth grader who is two grades behind in reading or a 10th grader who’s struggling with pre-algebra and biology – and matching them with tutors.

“We’re really here to just support the child, and I think a lot of our families like and appreciate us and what we do for them,” says Charles Evans, the organization’s executive director. “We don’t pry and try to figure out why a family became homeless.”

The children are assessed every few weeks to make sure they’re improving. In 2021, K-4 students improved their literacy skills by 21%; in the past six months, 5th- through 8th-grade students increased math skills by almost one grade level, and self-efficacy surveys showed a 40% increase in confidence in 9th through 12th graders.

Before the pandemic, tutors would meet students wherever they were, but tutoring sessions became remote – via donated Chromebooks and laptops.

The drastic change had benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, students could stay in touch with tutors even on the move. On the other, School on Wheels had to pivot from handing out backpacks and school supplies to figuring out how to get digital equipment into kids’ hands and making sure they had Wi-Fi access.

Now, the organization is returning to in-person sessions, particularly for younger children. But it will keep the hybrid model.

The School on Wheels’ Skid Row Learning Center, which closed and was completely made over during the pandemic, is getting ready to welcome kids again. Many clients of the center come from one of the biggest shelters in California, the Union Rescue Mission just down the street.

Outside of tutoring, School on Wheels wants to erase the stigma of homelessness.

Many of the families the organization works with found themselves homeless through no negligence of their own – victims of domestic violence or economic hardship, doing their best to get back on their feet.

For example, one single mother in her 20s, who asked not to be named, left an abusive relationship and ended up in a shelter with her four young kids. When she noticed her children falling behind in school, she connected with School on Wheels.

“It’s been the best thing ever, because my kids love their tutors,” says the young woman, who works and goes to school. She now gets reports from school that her kids are doing much better:

Angela Sanchez gets it.

The School on Wheels board member experienced homelessness during her last two years of high school, after her father lost his job and couldn’t afford rent.

“Once we went homeless,” she says, “I wasn’t sure what my options would be or if I would even be able to go to college.”

School on Wheels changed her outlook: Sanchez’s math tutor was a grad student in astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology who didn’t see her as a homeless kid but understood her dreams and aspirations.

“I literally had a rocket scientist helping me with my math homework,” she says.

He gave her a tour of Caltech, the first college she ever visited. The experience opened her eyes to possibilities and got her thinking about career options. She says it also gave her the confidence she needed to get her undergraduate history degree and master’s in education.

Now in her 30s, she’s an equity consultant, a published author and homeowner.

Aside from a literacy program for the youngest kids and tutoring specific subjects for older students, School on Wheels helps high schoolers plan their futures.

“Homelessness keeps you locked in a mentality of day-to-day survival,” Sanchez says. “But that shouldn’t stop anyone from thinking about what it means for life afterward, and I think we forget a lot about that.”

Magda Hernandez wrote this for The Christian Science Monitor.

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This story is republished through our partners at the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues.