Overcoming Life’s Challenges Through Education
Down the street from luxurious high-rise apartment buildings, and steps away from the San Diego City and County Administration Building is a school like any other: brick and mortar, teachers and students. Yet the collective pride and commitment within this 10,000 square foot facility on Cedar Street can be described as rare.
Welcome to Monarch School, a public K-12 school exclusively for children whose lives have been affected by homelessness. Many of these children have been living on the street in makeshift shelters, staying in homeless shelters or doubling and tripling up with other families in available hotel rooms and one room apartments.
Walking through the courtyard where students are simultaneously consuming education and lunchtime snacks, one immediately realizes that the symbol of rebirth is the school’s mascot: the butterfly. The school’s mantra is its soul: Restoring Hope…Unleashing Dreams.
Leading the school’s 44 dedicated staff personnel is its principal, Joel Garcia. With the invasive sounds of a transiting train sometimes drowning him out (and teachers’ lessons in the accompanying classrooms), Garcia described Monarch School as a school of choice; the students also may choose from their neighborhood school and the school they were attending before homelessness occurred.
Established in 1987 as The P.L.A.C.E. (Progressive Learning Alternative for Children’s Education), Monarch School provides its students a quality education in spite of the challenges that homelessness presents.
The statistics appear to prove it. According to the June 2011 San Diego County Grand Jury Report, the school enjoys an attendance rate of 92 percent. Monarch’s 4th and 5th grade teacher, Stephan Keiley, was selected as one of the five San Diego County Teachers of the Year for 2011. Roberto Cortez, a 2011 graduate, was a regional finalist for the 2011 WWE Reading Challenge sponsored by World Wrestling Entertainment and Young Adult Library Association. There are 22 students on the principal’s honor roll with a minimum grade point average of 3.5.
A National University alumnus from the class of 2004, and member of the Monarch family since 2007, Garcia jumped at the chance to lead the school when the position became available in 2010. He resists being singled out for the school’s success, and instead credits the determination and resiliency of his staff and students.
While Garcia does not hesitate to deflect praise to his teachers and students, the quality of his leadership and passion are not lost on his superiors.
“Principal Garcia is simultaneously an effective educator, compassionate leader, and enjoyable colleague,” said Erin Spiewak, CEO of Monarch School. “Monarch’s students are well cared for and nurtured under the tutelage of Mr. Garcia….overall, he is just fantastic.”
Garcia understands the challenges that face his school. Navigating his way among the students and teachers coming and going between makeshift classrooms, Garcia said that the greatest benefit to his position is the uniqueness that is Monarch, which is the opportunity to observe the entire educational experience.
“A great thing that I see is that I’ve got the ability to go into the kindergarten classroom and see what’s going on in there, and go into another classroom and see how they’re doing things…” said Garcia.
Along with the emotional pride in his staff, which he wears on his rolled-up sleeves, Garcia’s personal day of reflection is when his students reach the pinnacle of their educational pursuit: graduation.
“There are a lot of those, there truly are,” he said, his voice softening and his eyes gleaming. “….when you see the students come in and often times they struggle…and with the support of their family and of the staff, you start seeing them mature and grow up, and all of a sudden they’re taking classes at the community colleges as well as here, and the culmination is at graduation.”
Garcia also mentions the appreciation of his students as a driving force.
“We hear it all the time: ‘If it wasn’t for the school, if it wasn’t for the dedication of the team, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be graduating, I wouldn’t be standing up before you today.’ So, you know it is really gratifying and I take pride in that.”
In an email received via the San Diego Rescue Mission staff, 46-year-old Kami Peterson and her 7-year-old daughter Angel said they appreciate the school and staff, and the extracurricular activities Monarch provides, particularly family dinners and shopping days. Angel’s favorite subjects in school are art and science.
Angel appreciates Garcia and the teachers, and would not hesitate sharing her school with others, because in her words “[Principal Garcia and the teachers] are really good. They help with homework sometimes…Monarch is the best school. I would show [newly arriving kids] around.”
Monarch School enjoys a unique public-private partnership between the San Diego County Office of Education and the nonprofit Monarch School Project, headed by Ronne Froman, a retired Navy admiral and former chief operating officer for the city of San Diego. This partnership allows for the students’ educational and personal needs, such as food, transportation and personal hygiene, to be met.
According to Garcia, the County Office of Education is responsible for the building’s lease, credentialed teachers and assistants, and technology including smart boards and laptops. The nonprofit provides for other staffers, as well as shower and laundry facilities.
Garcia estimates that 55 percent of the operating budget for the school comes from the nonprofit, with 45 percent being provided by the County Office of Education. According to the Monarch School Project tax form 990 filed last year, the nonprofit reported $3,341,014 in total revenue, and $2,086,751 in total expenses.
All of the students are provided with medical exams, and medical care as needed, said Garcia. A nurse is provided three days a week, for three hours per day, as part of a partnership with the San Diego Family Health Center. In addition to medical care, dental support is also provided on a quarterly basis with the Children’s Dental Health Association. Pursuant to this support, dental check-ups, cleanings and fillings are made available.
Many of the students arriving at Monarch are well below their appropriate grade level (three years behind, according to statistics provided by Monarch), and lacking reading or writing skills. To combat this, Garcia said the school is in session year-round except for legal holidays, and a seven day winter break. For every six months of school attendance, the student is credited one year. Garcia also says the students are given assessment testing upon enrollment in order to determine their math ability, reading comprehension and language usage levels.
“It’s not required that you have a specialized curriculum for [students] but just highly effective teachers, highly effective strategies in the classroom,” Garcia said. “And that is one thing I can tell you that I am really proud of my staff, because they are excellent. They pour their heart and their soul into what they’re doing. They see the urgency of education for students and doing as much as we possibly can for that student today, because we don’t know how long they’re going to be here for.”
Garcia is particularly proud of the after-school program his staff provides to the students.
“We have a mandatory after-school program for students that have three missing assignments or anything less than a “C” grade in any of their classes. They are required to stay for this extra hour of learning,” said Garcia. “The parents are all on board with that. So it keeps their studies on the front burner.”
Resilience is a common theme at Monarch. It is something that is exhibited by the students on a daily basis, and recognized by Garcia. So much so that he chose it for his dissertation. He subsequently narrowed it down to the school’s role in the successful education of the homeless children.
Like the school’s mascot, the students of Monarch overcome extreme challenges to defeat homelessness. It is this strength that never fails to amaze Garcia, and of which he speaks passionately, almost reverently.
Garcia paused, and in doing so reinforced the unspoken, yet unbreakable bond he has with the children of Monarch. “I think that partially what is going on, for our kids, is that they understand that education is going to be their way out. It’s going to be their way out of poverty, it’s going to be their way out of homelessness. They have that value of education themselves.”