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Mobile Learning Comes to Mobile Kids

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Guy Perez, a 10-year-old math whiz kid, knows about life on the road. His family moved three times in three years, and he passed through as many schools. Unlike some friends at his latest address, Anaheim’s Lincoln Inn Motel, Guy did not fall behind in school.

Which is why he can help tutor his peers at the new mobile classroom and library for the 60 children who live at the motel. Guiding younger children to their seats in the 22-foot white trailer, Guy seems older than his age. With a frown of disbelief, he mentions that a 13-year-old friend can’t do multiplication tables.

Learning those tables, however, requires some practice, some consistency. Many of these children have moved with their families from motel to motel--and in and out of school districts. And their education suffers as they miss school and key elements of the curriculum.

“These children, they’re starting behind the line. They’re not even at the line,” said tutor Wally Gonzales, a woman who donates her time to Project Dignity, a nonprofit agency that runs the mobile classroom.

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Project Dignity also helps motel families with food, clothes and medicine. Executive Director Linda Dunlap estimates that more than 2,000 children live in motels throughout Orange County, a number likely to grow as housing becomes more expensive across the county.

And with cities such as Anaheim imposing 30-day limits on how long guests can stay continuously at motels, the need to move around is increasing.

“The children will lose days of school if they’re bouncing from motel to motel, or from shelter to shelter,” Gonzales said. “Any child would fall behind in these situations.”

On a recent afternoon, about 30 children had made their way to the classroom in the parking lot.

Rebecca Van Meter, 23, a mother of three, said the classroom would give her 5-year-old son a quiet study environment.

“He needs help with his homework, and with two other kids, it’s difficult to have peace to help him,” Van Meter said. “In a motel room, there’s not a separate room to do your homework.”

About 10 children were already at work on the low tables, their brows knitted in concentration. A group of retired teachers and motel residents serving as tutors busily handed out cookies and free books.

Eventually, Dunlap said, she wants the classroom open four days a week. By offering a stable, quiet place for homework, she hopes the mobile unit can help level the playing field for these underprivileged children.

“The children want to learn . . . but they can’t even get library cards” because they have no permanent address, Dunlap said. “Some of them are out of school, so we also help put them back into school.”

In the long term, Dunlap wants to expand the program to other motels. To do that, she said, the group needs more volunteers. For now, the mobile classroom is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 to 5 p.m.

Gonzales said children’s needs determine what is taught there. But scholastic excellence isn’t the only thing emphasized.

“We’re a safe place,” she said. “We’re stability. Children naturally gravitate toward that.”

The classroom helps parents, too.

“Parents here love their children ferociously, but bad things happen to good people,” Gonzales said. “What the project does is provide them with [help], something they don’t have to struggle for.”


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