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One-of-a-kind school gives homeless students a PLACE to learn

The Progressive Learning Alternative for Children’s Education (PLACE) in San Diego provides homeless children with classes – along with clothing, health care, counseling, and more.

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    The Monarch School in San Diego, a nonprofit public-private partnership, provides an education and social services to the children of homeless or transient families.
    Courtesy of the Monarch School
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In an industrial neighborhood a few blocks from San Diego’s shipyards, children start arriving at the brightly painted Monarch School at 6 a.m., an hour before classes begin. Some come early to take a shower or wash their clothes. Others eat breakfast or take a nap. Classes end at 3 p.m., but many students stay for three hours of afterschool programs.

With about 400 homeless and transient students passing through its doors each year, Monarch is one of the few schools of its kind in the United States. The state-of-the-art facility also provides students with clothing, health care, counseling, and career training. Their families can get trolley passes, money to pay for birth certificates and other documents, translation services, and parent coaching.

“How can children focus on school if their tummies are growling, their shoes don’t fit, and they don’t even know where they are going to be sleeping the next day?” says Michelle Candland, who has been working with the school for almost two decades. Soon after joining the Rotary Club of San Diego in 1999, “I said I wanted to do something that involved helping children,” she recalls. “And one of the first things I was told was, ‘You need to see the PLACE. It’ll change your life.’ And it has.”

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The PLACE (Progressive Learning Alternative for Children’s Education) launched in 1987, after Sandra McBrayer, an educator teaching at San Diego’s juvenile detention facility and at a homeless shelter, felt that traditional schools were not addressing the needs of the kids she worked with. With funding from the San Diego County Office of Education, and operating under the auspices of the juvenile court system, the PLACE opened in a two-room storefront in San Diego’s urban core. Homeless teenagers braved a gantlet of drug dealers, panhandlers, and prostitutes to get there.

Then, in 1998, voters decided to build a new baseball stadium for the Padres a few blocks from the school, and much of the surrounding area was slated for redevelopment. Candland showed up at the PLACE on the same day that the landlords sent head teacher Susan Armenta a warning that her lease would end soon.

“I told her I’d do whatever I could do to help,” Candland says. “She asked, ‘What do you do for a living?’ When I told her I sold commercial real estate, she said, ‘What we really need is a site for a new school.’ ”

That’s when the San Diego Rotary club entered the picture. Candland – one of 10 Rotarian “Women of Action” honored at a White House event in October – found a 10,000-square-foot warehouse on the edge of Little Italy. The students voted to rename it the Monarch School, envisioning a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. With help from Armenta and fellow Rotarian Bink Cook, Candland set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Monarch School Project. Over the next two years, it raised $1.4 million.

“Rotary put together a group of contractors, donors, and volunteers who made things work,” says Erin Spiewak, the school’s CEO and head of the club’s Monarch School committee.

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In a public-private partnership, the San Diego County Office of Education continued to pay the teachers’ salaries and provide textbooks, and the nonprofit covered most of the remaining costs, such as real estate and construction expenses, health care, food, and other social services. (Federal laws that have passed since Monarch’s founding now restrict public schools from segregating specific population groups, including homeless students; Monarch operates under a waiver.)

Over the next decade, the school received high marks from outsiders, including the San Diego County Grand Jury, which periodically reviews agencies that receive public funding. “Public service at its best” is how one report described Monarch in 2011.

But even the new space could handle only a fraction of San Diego’s homeless and transient children, estimated to number as many as 20,000. Classes sometimes had to be combined, with one teacher handling two grade levels. Tutoring sessions were held in hallways.

Candland once again put her real estate skills to work to find a space big enough to accommodate at least 13 full-size classes as well as an auditorium, library, play areas, and offices.

Through the Monarch School Project, the Rotarians helped raise $15 million to buy the old San Diego Housing Commission building near the city’s waterfront and turn it into the 51,000-square-foot Nat and Flora Bosa Monarch Campus. Architect Eric Davy, of the Rotary Club of San Diego Downtown Breakfast, transformed the facility into an attractive space with curving hallways, glass-lined classrooms, and an airy atrium enhanced with chrome fixtures. Sony donated computers and audiovisual equipment. The San Diego Chargers provided turf for the kids to play on. The San Diego County Optometric Society conducts regular eye screenings, and a dentist from a Lions club volunteers to provide monthly checkups.

Although the number of students fluctuates from day to day and week to week, given the transient nature of homelessness, the attendance rate among the core group of regular students averages around 93 percent. And performance has been steadily improving: Over the past six years, Monarch’s score on the California Academic Performance Index has climbed from a relatively low 506 to a three-year average of 644, although it still has a way to go before it hits the countywide average of 834.

Teachers note that students who once were earning Ds and Fs are now getting Bs and Cs.

To prepare for life beyond school, older students receive job-skills training and intern at local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. An afterschool project called Butterfly Enterprises provides education in entrepreneurial activities, such as setting up a business to make and sell jewelry, with various students assigned to production, sales, accounting, and marketing.

“Rotary was a catalyst here,” Candland says, “and now it’s a small piece of a wonderful movement that the entire community has embraced.”  

This article originally appeared in The Rotarian, the official magazine of Rotary International. Rotary connects 1.2 million members of more than 34,000 Rotary clubs to provide humanitarian service and build goodwill throughout the world through addressing issues such as disease prevention, maternal and child health, literacy, peace and conflict resolution, economic development, and clean water. The Rotarian challenges readers to become more involved in service to their neighborhoods and to the global community. It's found on Twitter at @therotarian and @Rotary. 

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