Prodding Like A Parent For 30 Of San Diego’s Most Vulnerable Students
Part two of a series on San Diego Unified's growing homeless students population.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
SAN DIEGO Veteran teacher David Rammer is starting this morning huddled up with his colleagues in the office for children and youth in transition at San Diego Unified’s administrative complex in University Heights. They are the handful of San Diego Unified staff dedicated to serving the district’s almost 3,500 homeless students.
Rammer tells them that almost all of the high school seniors he works with have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid - a confusing application that stands between every potential college student and financial aid from the federal or state government.
They talk about their successes – but also the odds they’re up against.
Pamela Hosmer heads the Office of Children and Youth in Transition and she tells her employees this morning that the drop-out rate for San Diego's homeless students is more than twice the district-wide drop out rate of just over 3 percent.
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They also talk about the free bus passes the office issues that make it possible for the students they work with to get to school. Last year at this time they had issued about 1,500 - this year that number is up to more than 1,900.
"Each student comes to us with unique needs," Rammer says. "And they don't have anyone to speak up for them. So, I get to be that person."
Once the meeting ends, Rammer gets in his car and heads across Balboa Park to San Diego High School to meet with a few of the more than 30 students he provides one-on-one support.
“I’ll meet with students, check on their attendance," he says about how he spend s typical day. "If they’re missing some school I may call them on it. Check on their grades. See if they have any needs for school supplies. Because these kids don’t have anyone to go to.”
Rammer and the offices’ two other traveling teachers meet with some of the districts most vulnerable students -- teens living on their own and kids in foster care. The traveling teachers are in such high demand that only students aren’t on track to graduate can get their support.
The first student Rammer meets with today is 17-year-old Daisy Perez. She transferred to San Diego High from Mission Bay High School this year. She’s been in a group home downtown for about a year after bouncing between her grandparents’ house and the home of an ex-boyfriend.
She says getting out of that situation has led to big improvements for her school work.
“I attend school now, regularly, everyday, on time. So that’s a big improvement,” she says.
Perez was one of San Diego High’s students of the month last semester and is applying for college scholarships now, which is what Rammer is focused on helping her with today.
“If I would be on my own, I wouldn’t know what to do exactly, so I would struggle in getting everything done on time," she says. "Especially with the deadlines for FAFSA and scholarships – I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Rammer also pulls Senior Zachary Hall out of class to work on scholarship applications.
Family troubles brought Hall to San Diego in 2009. At first he hopped between family members' homes. Since moving to the same group home where Perez lives, his academics have stabilized. Last semester he got straight A’s and says Rammer’s encouragement makes a big difference.
“At the beginning of the year of like my junior year, I wasn’t doing too well. Like, I had almost straight F’s, that was not good at all," Hall says. "So now I’m working really hard and I’m busting my butt to work harder and it kind of helps to have that little bit of moral support to back me up.”
Next, Rammer heads to Garfield High School across the street. He has an appointment to help 18-year-old Lavelle Johnson transfer to the school’s Oracle program, a self-paced one-course-at-a-time school.
PHOTO GALLERY: Supporting San Diego's Growing Number of Homeless Students
In 2006, San Diego Unified knew of about 400 homeless students in its schools. Today, better identification and the economic downturn have brought the number of students who are doubling up with extended family, living in shelters or on the street has grown to nearly 3,500. A small team of school district staff work to make sure these students get to school and can succeed academically.
But Johnson is a no-show.
He checks in with one of Oracle's teachers to see how another one of his students is doing and finds out she hasn't met with the teacher in weeks. He is keeping her on the school role through the end of February though - in case she shows back up.
To buy Johnson some time, Rammer goes back to the car to grab diapers he’s delivering for Garfield’s teen moms program and snacks that the school’s homeless students can pick up when they need them.
These materials and Rammer's salary come out of the office's budget of less than $350,000 for homeless students and whatever donations Hosmer can attract to provide some extras - like paying for students to get yearbooks.
Just as Rammer is losing hope, Johnson materializes.
He doesn’t have the credits he needs to graduate on time and he’s hoping he can catch up at Oracle.
Going over Johnson's school records with Oracle Counselor Elizabeth Curran, they figure out that he passed both sections of the state's high school exit exam after taking it twice. That knocks one more thing off Johnson's daunting to-do list.
“Looking for a job, I have a baby on the way, just trying to provide," he says, listing his concerns outside of finishing school. "Staying out of trouble. Growing up quicker than others and trying to just make it.”
He says part of what motivates him is not wanting to let Rammer down.
“He’s really involved. More than others, more than other adults. They say they’re involved but he’ll actually take his time out to really get to know you. He’s really genuine and cares and I can really tell he does.”
After his meeting with Johnson, Rammer takes a quick lunch break and then heads to Toussaint Academy, the group home downtown where eight of the students he works with live.
He meets with the home's educational counselor. They compare notes on each student - their grades, the credits they need to graduate and where they are in the college application process.
Then it's back to the Children and Youth in Transition trailer on the San Diego Unified administrative complex grounds. Rammer ends the day back at his desk, sifting through the emails he gets back from teacher
“I had a student a couple weeks ago who was doing poorly in PE," he says. And through those emails I found out this student wasn’t suiting up. So we were able to get him some sweats and some t-shirts so he was able to participate in PE again.”
Whatever obstacles present themselves today, Rammer and his colleagues will start working to remove tomorrow.
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