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From Skid Row to high school graduation, Los Angeles supports homeless students’ academic success

June 17, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
Finishing high school can be an uphill battle; for homeless students, it can be like facing a mountain of challenges. The Los Angeles County Unified School District’s Homeless Education Program is designed to provide assistance to students who don’t have a place to live. David Nazar of PBS SoCal reports on efforts to help LA’s homeless youth reach graduation.
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GWEN IFILL: It’s high school graduation season, and one of the country’s largest school districts is celebrating the accomplishments of dozens of students who’ve had a particularly difficult time earning a diploma.

They have all been homeless, which drastically increases the likelihood of their dropping out.

But as David Nazar of PBS SoCal explains, a concerted effort to help those students graduate has been paying off.

It’s the latest report for our American Graduate project, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

DAVID NAZAR, PBS SoCal: Nora Perez just graduated from Roybal learning center, a high school in Los Angeles. Those four years can be an uphill battle for many students. However, Nora faced a mountain of challenges. This is what she called home during high school, the back of a car, parked on a city street. It’s where Nora spent part of the night and studied after school.

NORA PEREZ: You don’t have your own room. You don’t have your own bed. You don’t even know where to shower. And it was really difficult. It was really difficult.

And it brings tears to my eye, because going through all this pain, going through all those moments, all those cold nights that I looked at my parents and saw the pain in their face.

DAVID NAZAR: The difficult road for Nora began during her freshman year. Her father lost his job, and then the family lost its house.

NORA PEREZ: At that point, I thought everything was falling apart completely. I was losing everything that I had. It was just too much pain at that point, and I felt like giving up.

DAVID NAZAR: That pain motivated Nora to look for help, and she found it in the district’s Homeless Education Program, designed to provide assistance to students and their families who don’t have a place to live.

One of the first things the program targets: the essentials students may have had to do without.

DEBRA DUARDO, Executive Director, Student Health and Human Services, Los Angeles Unified School District: Homeless students and families have a lot of instability in their lives, and it’s very difficult for them to access services that they need.

DAVID NAZAR: Debra Duardo is the executive director of the district’s Student Health and Human Services Department. Duardo helps oversee 14 wellness centers built over the past five years with about $40 million in voter-approved bond money. Officials have also raised another $50 million to build even more, something they say no other district in the country has been able to do.

DEBRA DUARDO: Many of our students that become homeless or families become homeless as a result of mental illness, domestic violence, coming back from war, substance abuse.

So when you’re children — when you’re a child and you’re dealing with some of these issues in your family, oftentimes, you’re going to have symptoms of anxiety, depression, haven’t been taken to a doctor for regular care, lacking dental services.

DAVID NAZAR: While the centers help all the district’s most at-risk kids, a lot of the effort is spent on those who are homeless, and there are many of them.

California’s homeless population is the highest in the country by far. Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated there were about 137,000 homeless people living here. The Los Angeles Unified School District alone has identified 15,000 children within its boundaries who don’t have a proper place to stay, and school officials say there could be hundreds, possibly thousands more, who haven’t told the district they’re homeless.

And it can be very difficult to simply get them in the door.

DEBRA DUARDO: We don’t always know which of our students are homeless because they aren’t always forthcoming with that information. There’s a big stigma. They’re embarrassed. They feel humiliated. And so even if they need services or there’s access to services, sometimes, we don’t know about it if they’re not willing to share that information.

DAVID NAZAR: In addition to the stigma of homelessness, many students fear the intake process because of their immigration status. The district is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, and the school system says it has the highest percentage of immigrant families and undocumented students in the country.

Nora was one of them.

NORA PEREZ: I am undocumented. I wasn’t born here. I was born in Mexico. And I was born and raised until I was 8, and then I came here.

DAVID NAZAR: Another complication in this effort is the sheer size of the district. It covers more than 200 square miles of the Los Angeles metro area, with students scattered from the San Fernando Valley to the north to San Pedro in the south and from downtown’s Skid Row to the Pacific Ocean.

That’s why a big part of the Homeless Education Program’s philosophy is to reach the kids where they are.

Nancy Gutierrez, the program’s coordinator, spends a lot of time on Skid Row.

NANCY GUTIERREZ, Coordinator, Homeless Education Program, Los Angeles Unified School District: We want to empower them with the same opportunities as any other student to be able to break the cycle of extreme poverty that they’re facing.

DAVID NAZAR: Gutierrez’s program, like all those nationwide, does receive federal funding under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to deal with pervasive issues homeless students face, like enrollment delays due to a lack of documentation. But it’s not nearly enough.

NANCY GUTIERREZ: Some of the barriers that our students experience range from the minimal, the basic needs that these students don’t have. They sometimes don’t have a toothbrush, toothpaste, a washcloth to wash themselves.

DAVID NAZAR: All those things can get expensive, and that’s why the program has many partners.

NANCY GUTIERREZ: We work with independent organizations, even banks and individuals in the community, to have grants and sponsorships, also private funds, so that we can provide all of the services necessary, because, as you can just imagine, even providing a backpack to 15,000 students is a huge cost.

DAVID NAZAR: One of the organizations the district works with, is School on Wheels, a nonprofit learning center in downtown L.A., which provides tutoring and mentoring to kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.

MATT RAAB, Program Director, School on Wheels: Our goal is to find the gaps in the education of homeless students and fill in those gaps, help those students catch up.

DAVID NAZAR: Matt Raab is the group’s program director. He says School on Wheels has nearly 2,000 volunteers who crisscross some of the city’s worst neighborhoods to find children living in motels, shelters, or on the street. They either teach the kids there, or bring them back here, to the Skid Row center.

MATT RAAB: It’s difficult because every time there’s a new student that we match up with a volunteer tutor, and we see what we can do for those students, and we see them succeed in school, there’s another family right behind them that needs our help.

And that’s what we have been seeing over the years. It’s just a constant steady increase in the number of homeless families, and that makes our work that much more challenging.

DAVID NAZAR: Another challenge the district faces is helping homeless students pay for the public transportation they may need just to get to school. The district gets some money under the McKinney-Vento act, and uses some its own money to pay for city bus passes, and many of its own employees also pitch in.

Services like that have helped 100 homeless students, including Nora, earn a diploma this year. And the district officials say they’re proud to have one of the highest homeless student graduation rates in the country.

DEBRA DUARDO: We see many of our students that are going on to college, four-year universities, getting scholarships, because of the services that they are getting early on.

DAVID NAZAR: And even though Nora Perez isn’t able to enroll in college right now, she is determined to eventually earn a university diploma and one day become an FBI agent.

NORA PEREZ: And every time I try to give up, I think about it, and I’m like, you know what, no, I’m not going to give up. Now that I have accomplished so many things, I’m not going to give up.

DAVID NAZAR: And it may soon be a little easier. In just the past few weeks, Nora and her family have finally found an apartment they can call home.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen,a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.