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 the circumstances that put the girl educationally behind by about a grade.
The space remained their meeting spot for six sessions until, one day, Ms. 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,” Ms. Meek says. “I think even at that young, vulnerable age she understood that something had changed, that there was a set level of trust, that she could trust me.”
Ms. 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. She and the girl worked together for about two years until the child moved out of state and they lost touch.
Recently, Ms. 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 she started tutoring kids 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 Ms. Meek, who joined in 1999.
“She was the inspiration and teacher and had the education background, and I had the business and financial background,” says Ms. Meek. “The need was there in 1993, and it’s just grown astronomically since then. One in 30 kids in California in a classroom is homeless.”
The organization grew steadily, partnering with shelters, school districts, motels, libraries, anywhere homeless families could be – even reaching those living in cars, in foster homes, and on the streets.
With year-round operations in six counties, prior to the pandemic, the organization reached more than 3,000 homeless children a year, and it recruited and trained more than 2,000 tutors annually.
During the pandemic, the number served dropped to about 2,000, and tutors were down to 1,300. Annual funding reached $3.5 million in 2020.
“Students experiencing homelessness move on average about three to four times a year, and with each move, it’s estimated that they fall behind four months academically,” says Charles Evans, the organization’s executive director. “Our whole goal as an organization is to really try to fill in those academic gaps.”
School on Wheels doesn’t get into the students’ backgrounds but focuses solely on assessing the kids’ 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 Mr. Evans. “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. Ms. Meek says that in 2021, K-4 students improved their literacy skills by 21%; in the past six months, fifth through eighth grade students increased math skills by almost one grade level, and self-efficacy surveys showed a 40% increase in confidence in ninth through 12th graders.
Leavening the community
Before the pandemic, tutors would meet students wherever they were – motels, shelters, libraries. But tutoring sessions have been remote – via donated Chromebooks and laptops – in the past couple of years.
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.
The digital transition was already in progress when COVID-19 hit, says Mr. Evans. Now, the organization is returning to in-person sessions, particularly for younger kids. 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.
Mr. Evans, who runs the learning center, describes its leavening place in the community: Staff used to pick up about 25 children at the Union Rescue Mission as they got off the school bus and walk them to the learning center for after-school programs. They’d sing along sidewalks where people sitting on the ground would put away drug paraphernalia or anything inappropriate for young eyes.
Later, the organization worked with the school district to have students dropped directly at the learning center’s front door and is likely to return to that system in the coming school year.
Outside of tutoring, School on Wheels is out 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 for security reasons 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: “The teacher did see a lot of improvement in [my daughter’s] math and her spelling.” That motivates her to do better herself, says the mother.
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, I wasn’t sure what my options would be or if I would even be able to go to college,” she says, adding that she hid her circumstances to avoid the stigma.
School on Wheels changed her outlook: Ms. 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 – getting into college, getting a house, and becoming independent.
“Homelessness keeps you locked in a mentality of day-to-day survival. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from thinking about what it means for life afterward, and I think we forget a lot about that,” Ms. Sanchez says.