Sandy Huffaker / The Atlantic

A High School for the Homeless

For seniors at San Diego’s Monarch School—where 93 percent of students have no form of permanent housing—earning a diploma means leaving behind their only reliable source of food, clothing, healthcare, and more.

Andrea and I sat cramped around a little two-top table at a Starbucks near her apartment, materials from her U.S. government class spread out before us. The handouts were photocopied news articles about teenagers pursuing The American Dream, the topic of an essay Andrea was writing. There was the Somali “Lost Boy” and his remarkable rise from child soldier to U.S. college student; there was a young woman who escaped the Taliban and made it to a U.S. high school, then college on a scholarship.

Like these teens, 17-year-old Andrea wants to graduate from high school, go to college, and pursue a career. But just hitting the first goal—high school graduation—has often seemed impossible, because Andrea’s family has been homeless on and off since she was 12. For the last five years she has been a student at the Monarch School in San Diego, a school exclusively for homeless children. It’s the largest one of its kind in the nation and the only one that serves high school students. There is no official accounting of schools that serve only homeless students but three are often cited along with Monarch: TLC, a public K–6 school in Stockton, California; Positive Tomorrows, a free K–5 private school in Oklahoma City; and Children First Academy, a non-profit K–8 charter school with campuses in Tempe and Phoenix serving students at the poverty line, the majority of whom are homeless.

Monarch was founded in 1987 as a drop-in center downtown staffed with one teacher. In 2001, the school moved into a 10,000 square-foot building in San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood and a year later reached its capacity, four years ahead of growth projections. In 2013, Monarch moved to its current home in the Barrio Logan neighborhood, the $17 million, 51,000-square foot Nat & Flora Bosa Campus (named after the family of the real estate developer Nat Bosa, who who donated $5 million). The school is half a mile from Petco Park and about 20 miles from the Mexican border. Many of the school’s 300 K–12 students don’t live nearby; they come from all over San Diego County. Monarch doesn’t do any outreach or recruitment of homeless children; its community affairs manager Katherine Field says students are referred mostly by word of mouth, shelters, and social service organizations. “They literally show up at the door,” she told me.

Most homeless students in the U.S. attend regular public schools and federal law allows them to stay in one school even if their family keeps moving. The government’s official counting puts the number of public school children in the U.S. that are homeless at more than 1.2 million—the highest ever on record, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. Thirty percent of them live in California. In San Diego County alone, there are more than 22,000 homeless students in 42 school districts. The lack of programs is a pressing problem for teenagers like Andrea who are transitioning out of high school, says Shahera Hyatt, project director at the California Homeless Youth Project. Her group’s January 2013 action plan, “More Than A Roof: How California Can End Youth Homelessness,” led the state to pass eight new pieces of legislation over the past two years. Still, she said, “There are a handful of programs across the state, but not enough to meet the need. It’s a blind spot.”

Joe Wiseman, Monarch’s principal, says educating homeless students isn’t easy. They often come to Monarch after attending several high schools in different cities, and they tend to have large breaks in their schooling and face profound educational challenges. What’s important to Wiseman is that they feel safe at Monarch. “Here, they all share the same story,” he says. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed, we eliminate all those barriers. Every day they come to a safe place and focus on learning.”

Andrea, a senior at Monarch, straightens up the small apartment where she lives with her mother, stepfather, three siblings, and two uncles, about an hour from school by bus and trolley.

It’s hard to compare the academic outcomes of Monarch’s students to those of homeless kids at mainstream public schools. That’s largely because of the many obstacles to gathering information on homeless students, including the difficulty of identifying such children in the first place and the degree to which they change schools and drop out of the system altogether. There’s no national statistic showing how many homeless students graduate each year, but research on homeless youth has found that 75 percent drop out of high school. The high-school dropout rate nationally for public-school students is 7 percent.

At Monarch, Andrea and four other seniors are on track to graduate later this month. It’s not definite yet as most of the students are still making up work and preparing a required senior portfolio. A sixth student at the school is on track to graduate in December.

“A lot of our seniors, even the best of the best of them, are failing right now,” says Jessica Codallos, a counselor who works with Monarch’s middle and high school students. “Many of our kids are special education students, some are emotionally disturbed, a portion were born to mothers that were struggling with addictions. Our students have been through some horrible, horrible things. Many have just missed big chunks of schooling.” The San Diego County Office of Education estimates a child looses between four and six months of academic achievement every time his or her family moves.

“Many of our students just don’t know what it feels like to be successful,” says Codallos. While graduation is an important measure of success, and a stepping stone to many other opportunities, it places homeless teenagers in the unofficial category of “transitioning youth.” That’s the term often used to describe homeless people 18 and older who are not really adults but have been cut loose from the school community that provided the only solid structure and accountability in their lives.

Erica is on the verge of entering this new phase of life. She is a soft-spoken girl who told me she wanted to graduate from high school, go to college, and someday open a boutique that would donate clothes to the homeless. Erica has been largely on her own since she was 15 because of problems she had with her father and stepfather. Those situations were traumatic enough that she ran away to Tijuana to live with her boyfriend’s family, but the U.S. authorities came to get her in January and took her to a teen shelter. After that, she came to school at Monarch. The last time I saw Erica at school, it was March, days before her 18th birthday. She was in the library working on an English assignment and worrying about where she was going to live the following week. Teen shelters don’t accommodate young people over the age of 18.

“I need support,” she said. “It’s the not knowing where I’m going to stay that keeps bringing me down. I don’t know where I’m going to go.” The following week Erica was no longer attending school, mostly likely because she had no place to stay.

Monarch students walk home from school through downtown San Diego.

Homeless children generally fall into two categories: those living in families (whether their own or someone else’s) and those completely on their own. The vast majority of Monarch students, like most homeless kids nationwide, are in the first category. Twenty-seven percent live with relatives, friends, or other families without being legally accounted for on any lease; nearly 75 percent of homeless children live that way, according the National Center on Family Homelessness. The federal definition of a homeless student includes those in families living “doubled up”—for example, with a relative or friend’s family—as well as those living in hotels, parks, bus and rail stations, abandoned buildings, campgrounds, and cars, not mention emergency and transitional shelters.

Andrea’s extended family—her mother, stepfather, three siblings, and two uncles—has lived for the last year in a two-bedroom apartment about an hour from school by bus and trolley. She’s in a small minority—7 percent—of Monarch students who have any kind of permanent housing at all. More than half live in homeless shelters. Andrea herself spent years living with her family in shelters, at hotels, at parks, and at other people’s homes. Her mother, who was pregnant with Andrea at 15, and many of her other relatives have struggled with drug addiction.

Dana Harwood, who teaches eighth grade at Monarch, said that for some students who were raised in a shelter, the lack of proper housing in and of itself is not the most difficult aspect of their lives because it’s all they’ve ever known. But very few have a calm, stable adult in their lives who can consistently provide for them emotionally and physically. “I feel very strongly that every one of our kids needs a consistent role model who is there for them,” she says, “and can guide them through their lives as teenagers.”

The second category of homeless kids, unaccompanied youth, is vastly undercounted because these children tend to do whatever they can to blend into the general population in order to avoid getting put into foster care or returned to their parents. The point-in-time count done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year counted 6,274 unaccompanied youth under 18. At Monarch, just 7 percent of students have no adult living with them at all.

High-school students take part in a group discussion at the Monarch School.

Matthew, a senior aiming to graduate in December, is one of them. He said he came to San Diego from Guam at 13 in order to escape his abusive mother and stepfather. His grandmother invited him to come live with her in northern San Diego County; their household also included Matthew’s uncle and his uncle’s girlfriend. But the country was in the midst of a recession, and Matthew’s grandmother and uncle lost their jobs. Soon they couldn’t pay the rent and were evicted. “We started to free fall,” says Matthew.

After living for short stretches with a few different friends, all five of them began living in a single car. “It was a big, pimped-out, 1997 Yukon Denali, big rims, Gucci interior, with like five TVs and a big stereo system,” recalls Matthew. “It was made the year I was born.” They lived there for months, going to a church to take showers and get meals. Matthew eventually found his way to Monarch and left his family and the car to live in a teen shelter downtown. “It’s good,” he says. “I have a bed there, I feel hope, like I’m someone who can be successful.” Until a few months ago Matthew had a job and was doing well in school. During basketball season, he played on Monarch’s team. But his life outside of school has been rockier: At the shelter, he broke some of the rules and lost his single room. He also lost his dishwashing job (Matthew says it was because of a misunderstanding about his day off).

“I am really trying to focus on school now,” he says. “This is the first week of the trimester and I’m doing good. I’m trying to make sure I graduate. I have some work to make up, but I’m almost done with my Common Core credits. All I need to do is catch up on my electives.” After graduation, he told me, he would like to either join the Coast Guard or attend San Diego City College for two years and then transfer to a four-year school. He plans to study counseling. “I want to work with kids,” he says. “I want to help them so they don’t have to go through what I did.”

One reason it’s so difficult for homeless students to reach graduation is the enormous amount of stress in their lives. Marisol Alvarado, the director of student support at Monarch, says an overwhelming number of students there have been exposed to violence of some sort, along with poverty, substance abuse and immigration issues. “They’re often in survival mode,” says Alvarado. “They sometimes have problems thinking clearly, reasoning and problem solving. The influences of trauma can mimic learning disabilities.”

There are a host of stressors associated with homelessness, including substance abuse, poverty, poor nutrition, lack of healthcare, and unsafe and overcrowded living. Many studies have shown the impact this kind of prolonged stress can have on kids. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows stress has detrimental effects on developing neural networks in the brain, especially areas that control memory and verbal ability and mediate anxiety, depression, and anger. For all of these reasons, it can be difficult for many homeless students to learn and retain information.

Students congregate outside the Monarch School. The $17 million, 51,000-square foot campus was created with the aid of a $5 million grant from the real-estate developer Nat Bosa.

Even when Monarch students do graduate, the effects of their childhood stress make it difficult for them to ease into adulthood. Rose, one of the seniors this year at Monarch, found out in April she was accepted to San Diego State University through its Guardian Scholars Program, which will provide a hefty scholarship and a place to live. She will be the first Monarch graduate to attend the four-year university. It’s great news but Rose isn’t celebrating. She is mostly anxious about it.

Rose came to San Diego from Tijuana at 13 with her mother and siblings. The family stayed at the San Diego Rescue Mission and other homeless shelters, but her mother couldn’t earn enough to survive and went back to Mexico. By then Rose was already at Monarch and wanted to stay. Ever since, she has spent much of her time living with her boyfriend and his family. At 18, she is now too old for teen shelters. It’s a tenuous situation. There are seven children in her boyfriend’s household, all of them living in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. (He was once a student at Monarch, too.) His parents sleep in the living room. Even so, when Rose talks about what it will be like to live in more spacious university housing, she starts to cry. “I’m scared,” she says. “All I know is [my boyfriend]. I don’t know what is going to happen.”

Rose’s mother has been in jail since September and her father, with whom she has little contact, lives in Mexico. She has a brother in Mexico, a sister in Los Angeles, and a second sister she doesn’t know much about. “What’s hardest for me is not having financial and emotional support from my mom,” says Rose. “It’s been very hard since she went to jail, but even before then, she was into drugs and never really there.”

Monarch’s main lobby after class on a Monday afternoon

There aren’t nearly enough programs to help homeless 16-to-22-year-olds transition, said Bill Bentley, the associate commissioner of the Family and Youth Service Bureau at the Health and Human Services department. “We absolutely need more programs,” said Bentley, adding that, at last count, only about 3,300 homeless 16- to 22-year-olds were in transitional housing beds. A point-in-time count done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year found close to 40,000 homeless people in this age group. President Obama’s 2015–16 budget has requested more money for a prevalence study, Bentley says, which will help assess the size and scope of the problem. Last July, Obama also signed the Workplace Innovation Opportunity Act of 2014, which provides support and job training to low-income youth.

To help prepare them for life after high school, the Monarch School just launched a new program headed by KishaLynn Elliott, the school’s director of college and career development. Elliott says last year she tried to focus on college preparation but that backfired.  Instead of prepping students for SATs, Elliott is now teaching them to manage an appointment calendar, become financially literate, communicate effectively with adults, and solve problems.

The program also includes an internship program in which both Rose and Andrea are participating. To qualify, students have to be at least 16, have a social security number, and maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA. Students in the program get two hours of work-readiness training after school and three hours of on-the-job training—at local hotels, businesses, and nonprofits—under the supervision of a worksite mentor. The internship pays a monthly stipend and students can earn five credits toward graduation. Elliott, who is also a certified life coach, does private, one-on-one coaching with interns each month, helping them establish and reach personal, academic, and professional goals. “It helps them get a sense of themselves, get the support where it’s needed and recognition where it’s deserved,” she says. “It builds confidence.”

Noe, a former Monarch student, said he could have used a life skills program when he was a senior in 2013. “I had this enormous fear of failing when I graduated, and one of the hardest things about the transition to [San Diego] City College was knowing how to manage my time. I hadn’t learned that,” he said. “I didn’t know how to schedule classes so that I had time for a job.” Noe decided to structure his community college classes the same way his classes had been organized at Monarch. “I just followed the same routine as high school. I thought, if that worked in high school, I’d just do the same thing here.” It worked—Noe will finish up his two-year degree in criminal justice in 2016. He’s also working as a Youth Leader at a local YMCA and volunteering as a soccer coach at Monarch. “I played soccer for five years at Monarch and I loved it. I feel like it’s a way for kids to deal with the stress in their lives in a healthy way.”

A student gets a slice of pizza during lunch period at the Monarch cafeteria. In a newspaper editorial, Senator Diane Feinstein praised the school for providing homeless students not only with an education but with “transportation, health care, food, clothing, academic advising, expressive arts therapy and counseling.”

Monarch is one of the only schools in the country exclusively for homeless students, and the approach is not without its critics. Barbara Duffield, the director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, doesn’t believe in separating homeless kids from the general population. “Homeless students integrated into regular schools get to experience a degree of normalcy,” she said, adding that mainstream public schools offer these students more opportunity and stability than a school like Monarch. “Plenty of organizations can provide shoes and clothing to students in public school. But to be able to go to choir, to debate club, robotics, classes with students in a variety of situations, that is important. And the students experiencing homelessness don’t report feeling stigmatized.”

In fact, the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, passed in 1987, generally prohibits the existence of schools like Monarch. The law states, “Homelessness alone is not sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment.” Monarch has been allowed to stay open under a special exemption that applies only to the three schools currently in existence. The law requires that these schools offer services comparable to those at nearby schools, and that homeless children come there voluntarily rather than being pulled out of other public schools.

In 2013,the school’s fate briefly seemed uncertain when Congress considered removing that exemption. Senator Diane Feinstein was among those who spoke out in favor of Monarch’s approach. “What sets Monarch apart from its neighboring schools — aside from being open year-round — is the additional support services for students including transportation, health care, food, clothing, academic advising, expressive arts therapy and counseling,” she wrote in an October 2013 editorial. “Monarch School is an example of a high-quality school that also improves the lives of its students and families, and it deserves our support.”

After years of sleeping at shelters, in parks, and at other people’s homes, Andrea Chacon now lives with her family in a two-bedroom apartment about an hour from school by bus and trolley.

So far, Monarch has been allowed to remain open. Andrea told me she was glad to return there after spending a short time at a well-regarded public school nearby. At the other school, she said, there were too many questions from other students. “I knew they would judge me unfairly if they knew my situation. They always asked why I got my PE clothes and all this other stuff for free.” There was also a lack of comfort and security. “At Monarch, you have help anywhere you turn. If you get into a hole here they let you try and get out of it yourself, but if you’re getting frustrated or you just can’t try anymore, they help. You never feel you’re in it all alone.” Erica gave a similar report about her experience attending a Las Vegas public school as an unaccompanied youth. “I need a lot of extra help, and I kept asking for it but never got it. I was ready to give up,” she said.

Many public schools are working hard to help homeless children but simply don’t have the resources. McKinney-Vento established a grant program to help districts identify homeless students and provide on-campus liaisons to help them find services and support. But Shahera Hyatt at the California Homeless Youth Project said many of these liaisons often have enormous workloads. “They do amazing work, but some of them have several thousand cases,” she says.

The Government Accountability Office took a look at McKinney-Vento last July and found resources for complying with the act were too limited. In 2014, the grant program received just $65 million in federal funding. Michelle Lustig, who oversees homeless-education services for the San Diego County Office of Education, says California gets about $5 million for the whole state. “We could use that much in San Diego County alone,” she says. “There are 58 counties in California, and more students experiencing homelessness than in any other state.”

Bill Bentley, with the HHS’s Family and Youth Services Bureau, pointed out that helping already-homeless kids isn’t the only issue. “In general, schools are usually one of the first places where a child is identified as having difficulties that could lead to homelessness,” he said. “The question is how do we better reach those families early, while the situation is still salvageable?”

Years ago, Andrea’s mother was one of those at-risk kids. She dropped out of high school in ninth grade, battled drugs on and off for years, sometimes leaving her children without warning. But ultimately, she pulled her life together. The family still lives within the thinnest of margins but Andrea’s mom has her GED and a full-time job she likes. She recently earned a promotion. Watching her mother’s ascent been both inspiring and instructive for Andrea. “I get that she doesn’t want me to go through what she went through at my age. She has always made it clear to me that my education is important and I understand that, believe me,” said Andrea, “I want to graduate.”