Hope. High standards. Heartwarming. And, homeless? Often, when we think of homelessness, we feel uncomfortable, sympathetic, and wish we could help. But Monarch School in San Diego, California, which serves children in grades K-12 who are homeless, challenges the stereotypes and brings an inspired approach to one of society’s toughest challenges. Bright, open spaces, hallways filled with conversations and an impressive 100% college placement rate set Monarch apart from many schools, no matter what population they serve. I recently spent time there with Erin Spiewak, Monarch’s Chief Executive Officer, on a site visit as part of my Teaching Ambassador Outreach.
I learned that this fresh new facility, staffed with top-notch teachers and overflowing with parent volunteers, builds on a decades-long string of successes. It’s a project that epitomizes what the Department hopes to achieve through the newly announced High School Redesign effort. It’s also a prime example of how strongK-12 Education wrap-around services can support student learning.
In fact, a glance at the history section of the school website shows this venture began over a quarter-century ago, with a community determined to make a difference for children in need. In 1987, “The outlook is bleak for homeless kids looking for help in San Diego. Recognizing a desperate situation, the San Diego County Office of Education funds a drop-in center where homeless kids can go to get off the streets and into books.” That modest beginning sparked big changes.
Over the next few years, a 10,000 square foot school was constructed to serve 150 students. Although small, from the start Monarch implemented innovative programs, including an on-campus café to provide vocational training for students. When the growing student population required a more space and additional services, the San Diego School District and the Monarch Foundation formed a ten-year public-private partnership, securing 100% of the funds for construction.
The new 51,000 square foot building opened in May and I had the pleasure of taking one of the first tours. What I saw made my heart soar! Of course, the site is incredible — a combination of sleek business features and innovative school design, including an electronic whiteboard in every room, a playground with real grass (a first!), a fully-equipped gym, library, cafeteria, and so much more.
But it was the wrap-around services and commitment to college- and career-ready standards that really caught my attention. Since good health and student achievement go hand-in-hand, the school provides breakfast, lunch, and three snacks a day along with dinner on Mondays and Fridays. An on-site laundry is staffed with parent volunteers who also wash the towels from the on-site showers. The “Butterfly Boutique” is a beautiful store stocked with clothing and accessories, which are free for students. A health room with a registered nurse ensures that students’ health needs don’t become barriers to learning.
Other needs are addressed by a Parent Liaison who helps families to secure housing, navigate social services, and become part of the school culture. In fact, CEO Spiewak told me that, “We’ve become experts at eliminating the barriers of coming to school.” Most of all, Monarch parents are expected to be partners and leaders in their children’s education, and the school respects and supports them in those roles.
It’s clear that these extensive services provide an environment that helps produce college- and career-ready graduates. The school team focuses intently on removing barriers to student success and ensuring that each one goes on to college. The staff’s commitment to higher standards includes career counseling, opportunities for work-based training, a focus on attendance (Monarch boasts a 93% attendance rate), small classes averaging 20 students per teacher and teaching assistant team, and an after-school program offering academic enrichment courses from 2-6 p.m. daily.
As I walked the halls with Ms. Spiewak, I met smiling faces at every turn. The children radiated a sense of pride, belonging, and the firm belief that they not only could but would be successful. Clearly, setting high standards and meeting individual needs is a winning combination. These students may be homeless, but they are at home at Monarch, and ready to make their mark on the world.
Kareen Borders is a 2012-2013 Full-Time Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education.