School on Wheels: Bringing Education to Homeless Kids

IF POVERTY AND THE DISSOLUTION THAT ATTENDS IT HAVE A SMELL, it's equal parts dust and must, with a hint of organic sourness from clothes left on bodies for too long. It seems to cry for windows to be flung open, for soap. This smell dogs the children of the Ford Hotel.

The Ford is primarily a transitional residence for homeless families on skid row east of downtown. Its apartments are tiny and its toilets communal. Steel security screens, no-nonsense in every way save for their white paint, keep outsiders out.

The claustrophobia of straitened living circumstances is not the only sort of suffocation that threatens the children of the Ford. It's possibly not even the worst. The personal dislocation they've experienced migrating from one temporary domicile to another is compounded by the hit-and-miss schooling that is also their fate. It causes them to fall behind, sucking the air out of their chances to make better adulthoods for themselves than their parents have managed.

"Kids, their No. 1 job is to go to school and to learn, no matter where they are," says Agnes Stevens. "These kids have lost not only one home, but a second home called school. Kids like to be in school. They like to be where it's normal to be a kid."

About 60 children live at the Ford, where a typical family's stay is less than a year. Most are in school, but practically all need make-up tutoring or enrichment to counteract the effects of their families' wanderings.

School on Wheels, which retired teacher Stevens founded in 1993 and runs from her double-wide mobile home in Malibu, fields 800-plus volunteers. In the course of a year, they reach about 2,400 of the region's estimated 35,000 homeless children. Their clients live in 46 homeless shelters, domestic violence refuges and transitional residences, as well as in a shifting number of motels and automobiles in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The tutors usually work one-on-one with the children weekly and try to keep them enrolled in nearby schools. Each child receives a backpack filled with school supplies. (Note to potential contributors: School on Wheels is running out of the backpacks.)

At the Ford, School on Wheels' work is particularly challenging. Only about 15 of the children there show up regularly for tutoring. They in many cases have to be recruited from the hotel's de facto day-care center, where some parents deposit their offspring for the entire day. A primary inducement is the promise of time on the half-dozen educationally programmed computers School on Wheels maintains there.

"Here you get some parents who don't care, and nobody's pushing the kids, so we have to attract them," says Peter Bodlaender, the retired PhD chemist who runs School on Wheels' effort at the Ford. "The kids often want it out of sheer boredom."

On a recent afternoon, volunteers Virginia Partlow and Anne Gross, both retired teachers, went about their uphill work in the converted office the hotel has given over as a "learning room" to School on Wheels. The room was clean but cramped, its walls rumpled and thick with many repaintings. Colorful stickers of tropical fish made an attempt at gaiety on the dirt- fogged windows with their visible exterior security bars. In the hall outside, doors slammed and other children yelped. The air in the room had that closeness, that smell.

At a small table, Partlow labored with a 9-year-old fourth-grader named Steven as he tried to identify similar letters and sounds in a series of words. The boy, poking his cheek with the eraser end of a pencil and jiggling his foot, tried gamely, now guessing right, now wrong. Steven proved unable to spell his last name. He was still struggling with what he should have learned in late kindergarten or first grade. "This young man does not know phonics," Partlow confided. "He can't learn to read till he learns phonics."

Meanwhile, at a desk a few feet away, Anne Gross affably put a garrulous 10-year-old named Darrell through a couple of written spelling quizzes. Darrell, barefoot and wearing a smudged yellow T-shirt, spelled "orchestra" as "orgstra," "guitar" as "gatar" and "drummer" as "dumer."

"He's a bright kid, a very bright kid," Gross lamented afterward. "He did pretty well phonetically, but he clearly doesn't read enough. There's a lot of this around--wasting, wasting. It drives me nuts."

Nowadays in the Los Angeles area, families are rarely found living on the streets. Any family that needs a roof can find one, thanks to numerous sheltering organizations.

Rooflessness, however, is also psychological. For kids, home should be a familiar haven from which to engage an indifferent world. The disappearance of this certainty, even for a time, is as much a betrayal of their childhood and an impediment to their progress toward effective adulthood as is physical abuse. Valiant efforts like those of School on Wheels can accomplish only so much. Among these kids, poor school performance, inability to fit in the work force, a deep-running insecurity--these are likely to be in the air for a long time to come.

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