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Monarch School Principal Sarita Fuentes

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We continue our special Envision San Diego series looking at leaders - and leadership - in San Diego. Tonight we explore the life and career of Sarita Fuentes. As principal and CEO of the Ho

We continue our special Envision San Diego series looking at leaders - and leadership - in San Diego. Tonight we explore the life and career of Sarita Fuentes. As principal and CEO of the Hope Region of schools in San Diego County she oversees the day-to-day operations of five public schools in the juvenile court and community school system. We joined her at one of those schools in downtown San Diego. Sarita Fuentes: "Monarch school is a school for homeless and at-risk students. We serve all of San Diego County. In order to qualify to be in our system we designate the criteria is that they live in one of the shelters for homeless people that they live in a single room occupancy motel, and or they are doubled up or tripled up with a couple of other families in an apartment. When students enroll in our system it's different in that we don't have them establish proof of residence, immunization records, we ask them do you have a place to stay?"

Introduces herself in Spanish.

Fuentes: "We've had families come in, come and enroll and they're living in their car or they come in from off the street. So that's the first thing we do is ensure they have a place to stay. No family lives in a car after they've connected with us."

Fuentes (introducing new students): "Aaron we have a few new students."

Fuentes: "We have a clothing bank. The community is very generous and gives us clothing."

Fuentes (to students): "Also Alysia is going to assist them with clothing. OK."

Fuentes: "Every month we have a shopping day and the families and the students are allowed to go through and take whatever it is they need. We operate a clinic here on our site and students have access to doctors and nurses every week. And if it is an issue with the family we'll provide a referral to one of our partner agencies in the community. We also provide food vouchers. So they can buy food if they need that."

Fuentes (to students): "You kids have to be in class in three minutes... oh just pour the whole thing in there!"

Fuentes: "Cabo Cafe was the brainstorm of one of our boardmembers, Ralph Rubio, who is owner and founder of Rubios Fish Tacos. He decided to donate that to the school. For our students it is their first opportunity for work experience. They're able to work there in the cafe and learn business enterprise hands on. Our school system follows the same state standards, we take the same standardized tests as the rest of California does. So you see our students and you find that they are normal students. They have hopes and dreams and aspirations like any student. But the challenges that they overcome just to be in school everyday are very very different. What we explain to them is that we enrolled and open 51 weeks of the year. We only close one week in December. And regardless of where they move they have the option of staying there or we'll facilitate the transfer to a neighborhood school. We open our doors at seven o'clock and our students arrive at seven and they stay until six."

Fuentes: "A lot of the families that are in the shelters they can't enter the shelter again until the evening until about 6 or 6:30. And what happens is the family has to walk around the city and find a place to go; libraries or coffee shops and wait until it is time for them to be allowed to go back to their room. So keeping our students here until 6 is an opportunity for them to be exposed other things -- the arts, museums, the theater, we take them to tennis lessons, swimming, a variety of things where the students are learning and seeing things other than life in a shelter."

Fuentes: "As an educator I did not take the traditional path to becoming school administrator. I was a high school dropout. When I dropped out of school I was16 years old and my family was also in crisis and I was looking for a way to just stay above water so to speak and so at a very young age I got married. I saw that as the solution not realizing that it was making my problem larger and I lived the life of dropout for 10 years. An educator came into my life, Dr. Mita Tores Stanovick, she became my mentor. Mita saw potential in me. She encouraged me to go to school. At the time she was a principal. I had my GED diploma and I was working as a clerk at this junior high school. She told me, 'Sarita you could be running this school.'"

Fuentes: "I started by going back to get my high school diploma so I was almost 30 years old when I obtained my high school diploma from adult ed. and I decided that I wanted to grow up and be like Mita. And so I went back and got my diploma for high school, my A.A., my B.A., and my teaching credential. And then I went on to pursue my masters. And my administrative credential because I wanted to be like Mita."
Fuentes: "It is a huge challenge to help families break the cycle of homelessness. Sometimes we realize we might not be able to fix everything for the family. But we believe that ensuring that that student is educated and receives a proper education we can perhaps break the cycle of homelessness for that student. And so the challenge for us becomes one student at a time."