Survival School for Teen Runaways

In San Diego, homeless youths get academics, food, and showers in a nontraditional setting

CONSIDER the notion of going to school if you're a homeless or runaway teenager. If you have no money for food today, can you really afford to spend your day in class working for a diploma next year? Can you do homework if you're homeless? If you haven't had a shower in days, would you risk the taunts of classmates and go to school anyway?The answers probably are negative. But the 14 framed high school diplomas of former street kids on the wall of the San Diego County Homeless Outreach School prove that these barriers to education can be overcome. Issues of basic survival keep this troubled class of American youths away from the education that could ultimately help lift them out of their problems, explains Sandy McBrayer, the young college-trained teacher who founded the school. Ms. McBrayer lures a steady flow of teenagers off the streets and into the classroom with food, clothing, showers, and a peer-like demeanor. The school's no-strings-attached administrative policy also sets a nonjudgmental tone: Attendance is voluntary and parent signatures, phone numbers, and addresses are not required for enrollment. "[Homeless] kids don't wake up on their rooftop [hideaway] and say 'OK it's 7:30, I have to take a shower and go to school, says McBrayer. "No one ever comes and says 'I heard this school was fun and I can learn.' It's for survival supplies ... then I try to convince them to stay. And very rarely does anyone leave without staying for school." About 120 to 150 teenagers - 35 at any one time - pass through the school during the year. They get tailor-made instruction on everything from academic subjects like fractions and history to survival skills such how to get a Social Security number. Fourteen teenagers from the streets who might never have returned to a classroom have earned high school diplomas in the three years the school has been in operation. Four have gone on to college with financial help arranged by McBrayer, and many more have gone to the military or jobs. Others, dropping in and out of the school, never quite tie up their loose ends. With cribs for students' babies, couches, and a few desks, the outreach school is far from a traditional classroom setting. Housed in a storefront next to an auto-body shop in a downtown area where drug dealing and drive-by shootings are common, the school shares space with other alternative high school programs for gangs and troubled teens. While enrollment at the other county-administered and government-funded programs is through court or social-service-agency placements, the Homeless Outreach School is open to just about anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 who walks in off the street. The level of education ranges from illiterate to just a few credits short of a high school diploma. Most of the students passing through are living outside legal bounds for juveniles: runaways or throwaways, they are underage and unsupervised and resort to illegal means - such as prostitution - to support themselves, and they often use drugs. In another era, these youths would have been considered delinquent and taken off the streets by law-enforcement or social-service agencies. Resources for these agencies have not kept up with the numbers of youth on the streets, explains Chuck Lee, director of the San Diego County Office of Education's Court and Community Schools, which oversees the outreach school. COUNTING the homeless is difficult. So estimates can vary widely. The National Network of Runaway and Youth Services estimates that 1 million children run away annually, spending at least one night away from home. Of those, it estimates, about 300,000 remain on the streets. This does not include children living with parents who are homeless. Aiming to educate these youths separately, instead of getting public schools to create flexible programs to accommodate them, is a form of segregation of the poor, contends the National Coalition for the Homeless, the largest homeless activist group. "Homelessness is not an educational condition. The reason we have these kinds of programs is the failure of public schools to meet their needs," says Joan Alker, assistant director of the coalition. "The symptoms [the San Diego Outreach School handles] are the conditions of a lot of poor kids - and public schools are not very good at dealing with poor kids." Homeless teens, by California law, "should be able to enroll in whatever school they're camped out by," says Linda Walker, executive officer of the San Diego County Commission on Children and Youth. But traditional school is likely to be uncomfortable for them because "they have no clothes, they are dirty, hungry" and may have difficulty adjusting to a classroom. Not only are traditional schools not prepared for homeless youths, but traditional teaching also does not encompass what these kids need, says McBrayer. A freckled, young blonde who looks more like the native breed of San Diego surfer girl than a street-smart teacher who has taken her share of verbal and physical abuse from students, she says, "There's not a book to refer to when a homeless kid finally comes to school." McBrayer's role as "teacher" is broad. She collects and distributes secondhand clothes, solicits free dental and medical help, and arranges for breakfast and lunch service for students. She tries to cobble together the scattered school records of students - calling all over the US - to put together a transcript of credits that will keep them from having to repeat grades they've already successfully completed. She walks downtown streets to recruit students and to keep contact with current students (that even has included helping a young prostitute with homework on a park bench). She has sat at the hospital bedside of a student dying with AIDS and taken calls on the school's toll-free 800 phone number for students who need help. And she contributes all of her speaking fees to a college fund to help students through their first year of college. (A Catch-22 for homeless youths is that because they cannot legally be on their own if they are under 18, they cannot apply for student loans or scholarships because they have no address nor do they have the parental financial forms to offer.) McBrayer says such basic services necessarily come first. Because, she echoes the students' question, "Are you gonna die without math?" But these kids can be taught, contends McBrayer. School begins at 8 in the morning. But because students straggle in late, the first few hours are reserved for breakfast, independent study, and tutoring by McBrayer and two teacher aides. The next four hours are dedicated to nonacademic classes that all students need regardless of their academic level - such as career courses on how to prepare for a job interview or sex education. Independent academic study is determined by the student's needs. A high school diploma is the goal, but if a student clearly doesn't have enough education to pass a high school proficiency test or earn a high school degree within a reasonable amount of time, McBrayer says she focuses on what that student will need most immediately - such as consumer math. Others, like Susan (not her real name), have everything but the confidence they need to get a diploma. Susan came to the program two years ago at 17 after spending four years on the streets making her way down the West Coast and away from physically abusive parents in Vancouver, Canada. Now a marine-biology major in college and a part-time teacher aide at the school, she says, "Sandy boosted my confidence.... I'd failed so many other times I didn't think I could graduate."

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