My career in public education is rooted in a determined pursuit of inclusion for students with exceptionalities. As a former special education teacher and administrator, I am a fierce advocate for the notion that “kids do better together.” I have always fervently believed that when students learn alongside peers whose life experiences differ dramatically from their own, they not only learn more deeply, but they cultivate skills like empathy and appreciation for diversity.
These beliefs were disrupted a few weeks ago when I visited the Monarch School of San Diego. All students at the Monarch School share the common experience of homelessness. According to the Monarch School’s website, there are currently over 22,000 homeless students in San Diego County. Monarch’s mission is “to educate students impacted by homelessness and to help them develop hope for a future with the necessary skills and experiences for personal success.”
The school offers a robust menu of supports to meet its K-12 students’ needs in four core areas: academic growth, social growth, emotional growth, and life skills. The school has shower facilities that students can use daily. There is a clothing shop called the “Butterfly Boutique” that is filled with beautifully curated donated items, operated solely by volunteers. Students are assigned personal “shoppers” to help them choose clothing, shoes, and accessories.
Beyond meeting its students most basic needs, Monarch School students have access to counseling and mental health services as a part of their school day. The school convenes multi-disciplinary teams to collaborate about students’ behavioral, social-emotional, and academic needs to develop personalized intervention plans. Students care for and maintain the school’s beautiful garden, and they cook what they grow in their state-of-the-art “nutrition lab.” Many students experience, for the first time in their lives, the stability and connection born of breaking bread at a dining table with your “family.”
The Monarch School is part of San Diego County Office of Education’s “Thematic Interdisciplinary Project-Based Learning” curriculum (or “TIP”). Students engage in authentic projects to advance their learning across core academic areas. At her exhibition presentation, one student shared with me about her research on gang violence in several Latin American countries, her eyes shining as she spoke passionately with me in Spanish about the issue.
This is a school that is aiming to dramatically alter the trajectory of its students’ lives. And all of these students are in the same building, in the same classrooms. On the surface they appear singled out, separate, self-contained. Yet over the course of my visit, it became abundantly clear that the Monarch School has achieved something that simply would not be possible without this separation. When an entire community is facing the complex trauma of homelessness, the stigma of so many related challenges simply dissipates, and what’s left in its wake is powerful: hope, community, and stability. The school tailors its resources to address the unique needs of the kids it serves. It is normal to see students get up and leave class in order to seek out emotional support when they are struggling. It’s not weird to take a shower at school, it’s expected. It’s not embarrassing to shop in the school’s clothing boutique when all of your peers are doing it too.
It is deeply sobering to consider what these same students would experience in any of the public schools here in San Diego County. This visit forced me to confront my own admittedly doctrinaire and rigid beliefs about inclusion, and to re-think my ideas about “alienating” certain groups and educating them together. The students at Monarch are far from alienated – they are empowered.
Professional Learning Specialist, MTLC
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