Opinion True Stories

Monarch School: Bringing the Invisibility of Homeless Youth to Light

By | Jul 12, 2015
Photo by Anthony Kelly

Photo by Anthony Kelly

Close your eyes. Imagine that you are 10 years old and sitting in class with your stomach growling. You slept at a shelter with your family the previous night. Before your family was accepted at this shelter, you stayed at a motel that felt unsafe and you were too scared to let yourself fall asleep. You can’t keep your eyes open. You cannot really remember the last time you got a good night’s sleep. The teacher is explaining a math formula that you are expected to master in order to get your homework done for that night. All you can think about is getting a decent shower and sleeping in a safe and comfortable place. Needless to say, math does not seem to be a priority at the moment.

More than likely, this scenario seems like something that would only happen to a small percentage of children in the United States, right? Wrong. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness (2015), 1 in 45 children experience homelessness in the U.S. each year. That’s over 1.6 million children. While homeless, these youth experience high rates of acute and chronic health problems. The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experiences also has profound effects on their development and ability to learn.

Logically, your next question is: How is this possible? Doesn’t the United States prioritize children’s issues, particularly their educational trajectories and success? Don’t we pour billions of dollars into our educational system on a yearly basis?

Yet, education consists of more than walking into a classroom each morning and sitting through classes. As evidenced by the scenario above, if a child’s basic needs are unmet, how can he or she do well in his or her courses (let alone make it through a school day)? Even though we are pouring billions of dollars into the educational system, many homeless children in our schools continue to fall through the cracks. Why? Schools generally do not have the capacity or bandwidth to adequately help children who experience homelessness and poverty. Oftentimes teachers are unaware that their students’ families are living on the streets, in their cars, in motels, and/or in shelters. Given the way that we have failed to deal with homeless students’ specific needs, it seems as though out-of-the box thinking is needed to address this pervasive and unacceptable issue.

Sandra McBrayer is one person who opted to approach homeless youths’ education in a remarkably different way. In 1987, she was an educator in San Diego teaching at a juvenile detention facility and at a homeless shelter and noted how her homeless students did not have the stability or basic necessities to focus or stay in school. In response to the complete lack of support for homeless students, McBrayer created the Progressive Learning Alternative for Children’s Education (PLACE)—later renamed the Monarch School, which offers homeless youth with resources that add to their personal and educational stability. Monarch School provides children in grades K-12 with daily nutritious and well-balanced breakfasts, lunches, and snacks each day. The school gives students new and gently used clothing, which is donated by the local community. Each month students can select the clothing, shoes, and accessories they need during “shopping day” in Monarch’s Butterfly Boutique. Monarch also offers shower and laundry facilities for student use, comfortable places to nap, health care, counseling, and career training. Additionally, the school provides translation services and parent coaching. In 2013, Monarch School’s Nat & Flora Bosa Campus opened its doors. The 51,000-square-foot school sits on 2.2 acres in Barrio Logan in San Diego. It is fully equipped with a gymnasium, single subject classrooms, a library, science lab, tutoring center, and many other features that are essentials to a modern, effective learning environment.

Monarch School is a unique public-private partnership. Since its inception, it has focused on specifically serving homeless students or those at risk of homelessness. Monarch School is the only school of its kind in the country. Its work positively impacts homeless students who are statistically 87% more likely to leave school than their housed counterparts. The school’s integration of basic services, a multi-faceted curriculum, and bridging the gap between students’ out-of-school and in-school lives has helped retention rates. Children who were getting D’s and F’s in their courses have raised their grades to B’s and C’s, and there is an upward trend which promises to continue. Ninety three percent of Monarch’s 2014 graduates are pursing college and career plans. Some of their career aspirations include becoming a business owner, veterinarian, digital game designer, firefighter, and high school teacher.

There is still much work to be done in San Diego and throughout our country to effectively serve homeless youth. Other factors such as gender, race, and sexual orientation impact students’ access to high quality education and social mobility. There are approximately 20,000 children in San Diego who experience homelessness each year and only about 700 students a year come through Monarch. What happens to the majority of homeless students in San Diego who are not enrolled at Monarch due to a lack of capacity? Many do not attend school, others move from one school to the next, and countless will remain invisibly homeless. Instead of closing your eyes to picture these youth, you should keep your eyes wide open—they are all around us. We need more people who are motivated to find creative solutions for ending homelessness for youth and providing effective support while these efforts are being made.


  1. Addisonadley
    Posted Nov 1, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted Nov 17, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful post you have posted dear thanks for posting. I am wishing to visit your site again and again.

  3. R. McMillan.
    Posted Nov 19, 2015 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    OK, but I wish you would extend this same tolerance and generosity toward everyone you know, regardless of how you feel about them!

  4. Amir
    Posted Jan 8, 2016 at 8:06 am | Permalink


  5. Posted Jan 28, 2016 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    It's a problem that should not be ignored. Everyone should pitch in together. It's easy to buy and sell your unused stuff, even give it away. There are plenty of sites on which to do so.

  6. Posted Feb 18, 2016 at 5:54 am | Permalink

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