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Homeless Students Find Welcoming Community In Sherman Heights

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

Sherman Elementary is making gains while serving a large number of homeless students.

— The students in Yolanda Riquelme’s first grade science class at Sherman Elementary are part of a unique program. They are trying to determine whether toothpaste is a liquid or a solid. And they're discussing the puzzle in Spanish.

The neighborhood school in Sherman Heights is the only school in the city where kids spend half the day learning in English and half learning in Spanish.

The approach is paying off as test scores have soared in the last two years. And they’re making those gains with groups of students who traditionally struggle academically.

Almost all of the school’s students are from low-income families -- 80 percent are learning English as a second language and about 8 percent, or between 40 and 50 students are homeless. Their families may be doubling up with extended family, living in a nearby shelter or out on the street.

Families transitioning in and out of homelessness tend to move around a lot. That can mean moving their children from one school to another, sometimes multiple times a year.

Gina Gardner coordinates services for Sherman’s homeless families and wants students feel at home on day one.

“The enrollment clerk will let me know if a family needs assistance with uniforms," she says. "If I’m here on site that day, I’ll ask the student to come on back and we’ll outfit them with a loaner uniform so that they can start their day looking like everyone else.”

She’ll also submit a request for a permanent uniform for the new student. But uniforms are just the beginning. Gardner also coordinates food packages kids take home for the weekends, works with shelters to get families off the street and helps get students health insurance and glasses.

When Clara Soto enrolled her children at the school in 2008 they were doubling up with other family members because Soto had gotten ill and couldn’t work. She says getting that kind of help from Sherman’s counselor got her family back on stable footing.

“She helped me a lot," she says in Spanish. "She got me bus passes, she got me clothes for the kids. She helped me get things I needed, she helped me with counseling. With everything.”

Four years later Soto’s three youngest children are still at Sherman and the family has a stable home of their own near the school. Soto wanted to stay in the area, in part, because she wanted her children to stay at their school.

A lot of the services Gardner can connect families with come through the district’s Office of Children and Youth in Transition, which supports students who are homeless, in foster care and from military families.

Heather Jahn works with Sherman’s staff to get families what they need - whether that's diapers, emergency food or school supplies. She says supporting the connections that make families want to stay is part of her office's goal for all of the district's nearly 3,500 homeless students.

“[School] is the one place in their world that may be stable," she says. "So we try to keep that in tact for them and try to have as much normalcy as possible for that child and that family.”

But coming into a new school in the middle of the year poses challenges for students and teachers. Yolanda Riquelme invites new students to join a group she tutors before school.

“I think the fact that they are here, with a group of kids three times a week, in the classroom before school. And the parents do come and observe what is happening – I think that makes them feel totally integrated,” she says.

The students in her morning science class spend their afternoons learning in English next door with Tom Sides. Sides believes part of what makes the school successful with students who start in the middle of the year and sometimes only stay a few months is teamwork.

“We meet almost every day after school. We meet as a grade level. I meet with my partner. I meet with my other English partners," he says. "So there’s a lot of collaboration going on. We talk a lot about – 'ok, this child doesn’t speak Spanish nor English, their native language might be Arabic, so what do we do?'”

The staff's focus is on making sure even the children with the most stacked against them succeed, according to Caballero.

“We always deal with what we call in Spanish ‘pobrecito’ – poor little one – and we can describe all of the things that should be holding the student back. But it’s really our job that when they come at 9 in the morning that we teach them to read, write, mathematics science and social studies because that’s what we get paid for," he says. "So all those outliers that present - this is why the child should not succeed - we check those at the door.”

Many of the families Gardner works with do end up having to leave the area because their circumstances can change quickly. Many homeless students are only at the school for three or four months. And plenty of schools just let families like theirs go . But Gardner does what she can to help kids that enroll at Sherman stay there, like signing them up for free bus passes provided by the district.

“Typically a family will come in and says we’re moving, what can we do to stay? And we’ll say, we have these services here and by the way – you have the right to stay here, too,” she says.

Sherman’s staff believe any child might beat the odds with support like that.

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