Skid Row program aims to stem summer learning loss

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Many kids will forget what they learned during the school year as they take their summer break, but it’s especially true for low-income children who may be homeless.

One program in Skid Row called the School on Wheels is helping disadvantaged children deal with their complicated lives and avoid the academic backpedaling known as summer learning loss.

Over the summer break, students can lose about a month of learning while they're not in classes and not doing homework. Research from the Partnership for Children and Youth shows that homeless youth tend to fall even further behind — by as many as two to three months — compared to their peers who live in permanent housing.

In 2014, the School on Wheels program helped 3,129 homeless students learn how to read, complete their homework, and write essays. They typically serve an estimated 700 to 800 during the summer season, according to Natasha Bayus, the program's education and training coordinator. The program expects to serve a similar number this summer and projects the number of students it will tutor to increase to 4,000 by the end of 2017.

Ethan Qubain, an energetic 11-year-old, is one of the children in grades K-12 who attends School on Wheels' learning center in Skid Row. At least three days each week, he plays games, goes on field trips, and works with tutors to keep up with his studies.

Ethan and his mother have been in and out of homeless shelters as she tries to find work.

“It's hard 'cause they wake you up really early, and there's this person named Ms. Jessie and in the morning she's like, 'Ladies, get up!' and starts banging on the doors,” said Ethan.

School of Wheels offers low-income children the opportunity to progress in their learning while they prepare for the next school year, but it takes a parent to place them in the program.

"My mom makes us do work and stuff, and that's why she put us in summer school so I'll remember it. Without that, I'm pretty sure I would lose some of the knowledge," Ethan said.

Researchers say homeless kids often have more trouble with learning loss because their environment outside of school doesn't contribute to educational growth to the same degree as students in higher income families.

Brian Lopez, a learning specialist with School on Wheels, has his own theory why poor kids have a harder time retaining what they learn. "I think homeless kids fall farther behind because they have other stressors in their life, like not just school stuff, but they also have to worry about food and safety," he said.

Chance to learn, have fun

On a recent day, the School of Wheels children stood in line for their midday lunch. On day's menu: a corn dog, celery, apple and milk.

The School on Wheels space is equipped with laptops and tablets for kids to work with their tutors side-by-side. Mentors are also available on the Web to help the children with class subjects, mainly math and language arts.

Children need stability to thrive, said Timesia Garcia, among the tutors who works with kindergartners and first-graders on counting and the alphabet.

"Some of them are very sassy, but they always have smiles on them," she said. They might get a tight hug from her “because some of them are in need of some emotional attention.”

Sarah Pitcock, chief executive officer at the National Summer Learning Association, said summer is a time that can help pay dividends for children during the school year, but only under the right conditions.

“Kids can't learn if they are not fed, if they are not healthy, if they're not secure, and so there's no point in trying to focus on education if some of the other basic needs aren't met,” she said.

Most of the kids enrolled at the learning center live at the Union Rescue Mission a block away.

Jesus Rodriguez, the single father of 11-year-old Kevin and 13-year-old Jason, enrolled his sons in School on Wheels this summer, which gave him time to fill out paperwork as he searches for low-income housing.

"It's very hard because you know, it's only you. So if they didn't have these places, I think it would be almost impossible to do. Thank God, they have these places. They help us a lot," said Rodriguez.

His younger son, Kevin, said he doesn't mind keeping up with studies over the summer vacation. "At School on Wheels, we're still practicing doing stuff. We're doing previews on tests and writing to still remember for the 5th grade," he said.

Getting kids involved in summer learning can be a challenge for full-time working parents like Arelene Olivares, mother of 10-year-old Railene.

Seven years ago, Olivares lived at the Union Rescue Mission with her four kids, all of whom were enrolled at the School on Wheels. She is finishing an internship to be a phlebotomist and has advice for working parents who are struggling.

“Even though you're homeless, you can still get your life together. Ask everywhere, all the resources and don't wait for anybody. You gotta go out there and get it,” she said before walking into the shelter after her family.


Los Angeles Mission: 

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority:

Homeless Health Care:

Summer Food:

Los Angeles Food Bank:

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