Sometimes I’m amazed to learn about uplifting programs that have been going on for a long time. School on Wheels is one such organization. Based in Southern California, this grassroots program was started in 1993 by Agnes Johnson. She understood the challenges of educating children when they’re homeless.
The idea behind Schools on Wheels was to provide resources and support to homeless children from grades K-12 so they wouldn’t fall further behind in their education. The data on homelessness reported on the School of Wheels website shows the devastation homelessness can take.
- Homeless children are nine times more likely to repeat a grade.
- Homeless kids are four more times likely to drop out of school entirely.
- Homeless youth are three times more likely to be put into special education programs.
- 500,000 California children are homeless.
- 1 out of 20 children living in California does not have a home.
- The number of K-12 students experiencing homelessness in California has risen more than 20% in the past four years.
The heart of the School on Wheels program is its volunteer tutors. The organization tries to train and match volunteers with students. Tutors can help in their areas of academic interest at their preferred age level. The goal is for students to receive one hour of tutoring per week, in addition to a student’s regular studies in school. Skeptics may think that is of little value, but as a retired educator, I know the importance of children knowing they have regular support from someone who cares about and is willing to mentor them.
School on Wheels offers many areas of support for families experiencing homelessness.
- One-on-one online tutoring
- School supplies
- Assistance in entering school
- Parental support
If you watch only one video today while reading my post, I encourage you to spend the next nine minutes and see how this program has impacted the lives of adults and their tutors. One can’t walk away without feeling happy for Chynna (tutee) and Katie (tutor). The first half of the video is Executive Director of School on Wheels Charles Evans and musician and TV host Kelly Clarkson discussing the program. The second half of this inspirational video shows us Katie and Chynna’s inspirational teamwork.
I’m often baffled by society’s lack of compassion toward the homeless population. I often hear people say things like, “Why don’t they just go out and get a job?” or “I never give them (the homeless) money. They’re just going to use it for alcohol or drugs.” Lumping the homeless into a selfish group looking to take advantage of government programs is uneducated and misinformed. Most people living in homeless situations do not want to be there. They’re looking for ways out so that they can provide a better life for their families. One of the first parts of becoming educated about homelessness is understanding that the homeless are not all living on the streets. Many live in shelters, motels, vehicles, and group foster homes
I taught children from the most difficult of circumstances. How can we expect kids to do well in school when their most basic needs like housing, food, and clothing go unmet? One of the things that used to make me go crazy as an educator was the overemphasis schools placed on state testing each year. We can’t expect kids that don’t know where they’ll be spending the night or where their next meal is coming from to give a damn about testing.
While the number of homeless in California and around the world is staggering, School on Wheels is making a difference. Homeless children living in southern California in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernadino, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties are getting help. Over 28 years, more than 50,000 students have received services. That may seem like nothing when observing the magnitude of the problem. In reality, some lives are saved or changed for the better because of programs like School on Wheels.
I became aware of this excellent program when my friend, Bruce Shaffer, became a volunteer and educated me about it. Bruce and I have known each other since high school. My mom, Virginia, and Bruce’s mom, Judy, became friends when we moved to California. Bruce’s dad, Jack, was one of my favorite professors in college. Not only was Jack a great educator and wonderful human being, but he also taught me a valuable lesson that always stayed with me.
Sometimes people could get into debates in Jack’s sociology class. Students with diverse political perspectives engaged in sometimes heated discussions. Jack created an environment where everyone was able to express their opinions. When the once-a-week evening class ended, he invited his students to Toby and Jack’s, a local bar in town. It showed me that people could have different views but respect others and break bread together over a drink. That lesson seems even more critical today in an environment where people are no longer civil to others with opposing points of view. Bruce has always been interested in math and has tutored it for years with students from grade school to college. At present, he is working with a ten-year-old student in 5th grade. When the pandemic hit, the group suddenly shifted directions and moved from an in-site program to giving children online opportunities. Bruce doesn’t live in one of the six southern California counties where School on Wheels exists, but since tutors must only live in California, this allowed him to become part of the team. I was delighted to learn of the scholarship opportunities the group offers. Besides college scholarships, there are smaller scholarships, so they pay for things like music lessons, science kits, extracurricular clubs, soccer balls and cleats, college test prep, and much more
I am pleased to bring attention to School on Wheels. I hope others reading my post may consider volunteering in this or similar programs. I know from my volunteer experiences that others are likely to join when they see how easy it is. Not only might you inspire someone else to act, but you will likely feel good about yourself while getting so much back. I encourage you to visit their website to learn more. https://schoolonwheels.org/