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School On Wheels

By: Lilli Erigero

Homelessness and housing insecurity has continued to rise over the last decade both across the country and in Los Angeles. But when we talk about issues affecting those experiencing homelessness in the U.S., we often forget to think about the 4.2 million children and young adults who are unhoused.

It goes without saying that homeless children in America experience a disproportionate number of challenges throughout their lives, but the extent of what they go through is unimaginable. According to the Voices of Youth Count, homeless youth are more likely to experience substance abuse, mental health problems, respiratory infections, asthma, ear infections, STIs, juvenile justice systems, suicide, and sexual and physical violence. The vast majority of these homeless youth are not homeless by choice.

Homelessness also has an incredibly negative impact on students’ education. Over half of the children who experience homeless are held back for at least one grade level, with 21% being held back for multiple grade levels. Moreover, homeless students are two times more likely to have a learning disability and three times as likely to have an emotional disturbance, heavily affecting their classroom experience. About half of students experiencing homeless in grades 3-8 do not meet state-wide math and reading reading standards.

The COVID-19 crisis only exacerbated these issues. Schools provide a sense of normalcy – food, caring adults, shelter – and a break from the traumas experienced on the streets. The closures of schools during the lockdown removed one of the greatest sources of stability for homeless students. Attending class and participating online was not a reasonable and viable adjustment for these students. LAUSD, the largest school district in the US, reported that more than 13,000 middle and high school students consistently disengaged from their online classes in fall 2020, with an additional 56,000 who did not actively participate on a daily basis. After the pandemic, two out of three students in Los Angeles are falling behind on math and literacy.

The pandemic has also disportionately affected communities of color. One study found that 40% of African-American students and 30% of Hispanic students in K-12 schools in the U.S. received no online instruction during school shutdowns. These gaps in access to online education have significantly increased learning loss among unhoused children. According to this study students, on average, lost nine months of math learning by the end of the 2021 school year, with students of color being 11 months to 12 months behind. These impacts are long lasting and will affect their education going forward.

The longer children stay on the street, the farther they fall behind they fall in school, which is why organizations like School On Wheels are instrumental in serving unhoused students across Southern California.

School On Wheels is a non-profit organization in Southern California, founded in 1993 by retired school teacher, Agnes Stevens. In 1993, Agnes gained her first tutor volunteer on Skid Row, Catherine Meek, and together they expanded the organization’s reach past Los Angeles, serving the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Riverside. As the only organization in the area that targets the educational needs of homeless students, School on Wheels understands the importance of education for these students and aims to provide relief through their programs.

Since their founding in 1993, School On Wheel has maintained their mission of enhancing educational opportunities for children from kindergarten through 12th grade who are experiencing homelessness. Their goal is to shrink the gaps in student’s learning and provide them with the highest level of education possible along with support for their students during a time of great stress and fear.

School On Wheels provides one-on-one tutoring, scholarships, digital learning access, school supplies, libraries, after school programs, and learning centers to students in need. Their original learning center, located in Los Angeles’s Skid Row, offers a safe and fun learning environment for after school support. Open six days a week year round, the learning center gives students access to computers, academic lessons, and summer programs, and because it is located in Skid Row, the neighborhood with the highest concentration of homelessness in the U.S., the learning center reaches the students who need their resources the most. Since the start of the pandemic, School On Wheels has even provided online tutoring as a way to adjust to the needs of their students.

According to their 2020 report, School On Wheels had 1,602 active volunteers, supported 2,360 students, filled 8,005 backpacks with school supplies, received 1,494 donated computers and tablets and 1,015 donated books. And, these numbers grow every year.

As someone who has grown up in the Los Angeles Area, I am extremely grateful for School On Wheels and have seen the impact of their work. As we start the 2022-2023 school year, this nonprofit is the perfect place to donate school supplies or funds. To learn more about youth homeless and educational inequity, I would check out School On Wheels.


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