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Without Family To Lean On, One San Diego Student Is Determined To Thrive

Part one of a series on San Diego Unified's growing homeless students population.

Courtney Medlin, 16, travels an hour-and-a-half to Scripps Ranch High School each morning. She was determined to stay after leaving her family for a group home.

— It’s 5:40 in the morning, and 16-year-old Courtney Medlin steps out the door of the group home where she lives in downtown San Diego to go to school. It’s likely she’s already been awake for two hours.

“If I’m going to wash my hair in the morning, I’ll wake up at like 3:45 a.m. and I’ll wash my hair and then afterward I’ll get ready for school,” she says.

The city bus stop is about four blocks away. She normally has time to make a quick stop at 7-Eleven. A coffee helps her stay warm and awake.

“I’ve had an issue with sleeping in class,” she says.

The 7-Eleven is also well lit, which isn’t the case at the downtown intersection where Medlin waits for the bus. This morning it’s just her and several homeless men, some talking to themselves.

The city bus is just the first leg of her trip. She takes it to North Park.

Courtney Medlin, 16, travels an hour-and-a-half to Scripps Ranch High School each morning. She was determined to stay after leaving her family for a group home.

“Then I wait until the school bus comes, in the cold, at like 6:30 in the morning. I get on the school bus and get to the school around 7.”

That school is Scripps Ranch High School about 15 miles north of downtown. It is one of the highest performing high schools in the city. About 20 percent of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, compared to more than 55 percent of all of the district’s high school students. But Medlin blends right in.

Once on campus she grabs a free breakfast and finds her friend Celia Rodriguez to walk to class with. Medlin goes to such lengths to get to school because she was determined to stay at Scripps, where she has gone since her freshman year after she left her grandmother's house for the downtown group home.

Medlin is one of an unknown number of what San Diego Unified calls unaccompanied minors - children who are not living with a parent or guardian and have avoided the foster care system. But Medlin doesn't think that label should define the way her classmates see her.

“I’m going to be open about it, it’s not something to hide. Like, it’s who I am – that’s what’s happened in my life”

When Medlin’s mother overdosed on methemphetamines the day before Thanksgiving in 2008, she was already living with her grandmother. She had moved there a few years earlier after a year of hotel hopping with her mom. Medlin says her dad is unstable and drinks. But, things at her grandmother’s weren’t perfect either. She left there about 10 months ago.

“What happened was we started fighting and it became kind of daily and it wasn’t just with her it was with other members of my family who lived in the house and it started getting bad and it started getting physical. It was to the point where I didn’t want to live there and they didn’t want to raise me and I had no where else to go.”

The stress of instability is hard on anyone. But Pamela Hosmer, who leads the district's Office of Children and Youth in Transition, says the more times a student changes schools the further behind they fall. Medlin and other unaccompanied minors are considered to be homeless. They're among the nearly 3,500 homeless students attending San Diego city schools. As a group they score below the district's economically disadvantaged students on state math and English tests.

After getting to school the rest of Medlin’s morning is nothing if not routine – English class, then graphic communications, child development and pre-calculus.

The thing that keeps Medlin connected to that consistency is the free bus pass Hosmer's office issues for her each month. The office issues hundreds of bus passes that keep students attending the same school even as they or their families move around the city.

Medlin picks her pass up from her counselor, Leslie McDonald, who says Medlin’s continued success at Scripps is of her own making.

“She’s one of those students – she believes in herself. You know, she has challenges and we work through them and talk and – life is not so easy. But by the same token, she looks at the future with a really awesomely positive outlook and she wants to do whatever it takes to get there.”

Right now McDonald is helping Medlin register for the SATs. District staff also help students like Medlin with basics like clothes and school supplies and with things like prepping for job interviews.

Last year, Hosmer's office knew of about 50 unaccompanied minors in the district. This year they've identified 53 just at the San Diego High School complex downtown. She says teens on their own often try to fly under the radar because of fear and embarrassment.

Even with some support, the friend Medlin seeks out to walk to class with in the mornings and every day at lunch, Celia Rodriguez, says she doesn’t think most of their classmates could handle what Medlin takes on every day.

“She sacrifices a lot of things to become someone in life and she does a lot. And most students, they just have it handed," Rodriguez says. "And, you know, she doesn’t have her mom there. Her dad’s not always there for her. It takes a lot to be a person like her.”

Finding out just how on her own Medlin is was a shock to some of her teachers, like Josh Rosenberg, whose biology class she heads to after lunch.

“This is fifth period and some students start to get tired or after lunch they come in all kind of spastic," Rosenberg says. "But she comes in and she likes to work and it’s complete answers and it’s interesting participation, it’s questions about material. And just – you would never know.”

Today Rosenberg’s class is learning about genetics and probability with a coin tossing exercise. Instead of flagging, Medlin is laughing with her lab partner.

Once classes end at 2:15 p.m., there’s no time for hanging around with friends. Medlin’s back on the school bus. She’ll get home around 3:45. A mandatory homework hour starts at 4:30. Then it’s dinner and an hour of chores. Medlin says she usually gets to bed by 11 o’ clock. Then it all starts again the next morning

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