The COVID-19 pandemic has forced more families into poverty and homelessness, compounding stress and trauma at home. According to the 2022 Point in Time Count, the number of people experiencing homelessness in San Diego County has gone up by 10 percent since 2020—and those are just the ones we know of. Many families experiencing homelessness or financial strain brought on by the pandemic are likely hiding in plain sight in our communities.
Schools statewide have been trying to provide mental health support and other meaningful assistance to children whose families were facing major hardships since before the onset of the pandemic. They know how important it is to do so, because social support at school for children is a major driver of the resilience they need to overcome these obstacles and thrive, but public school resources, as we know, are often limited.
However, there is hope in something called the “community school” model, and it can be adopted quickly by many schools in San Diego to help more kids succeed.
Resources for the Entire Family At School
The American Federation of Teachers defines a community school as an educational environment that successfully integrates student support, expanded learning time, progressive curriculum, caregiver engagement and social practices that are intended to nurture resilience and healing among students who’ve faced myriad life traumas, including poverty, homelessness and domestic or substance abuse at home.
Data has shown that the community school model works. Research from the Learning Policy Institute shows that when students’ families are able to get stabilizing resources through their school such as housing assistance, financial literacy education, nutritional support and mental health counseling, their academic performance improves and they achieve a measure of security that leads to better emotional health.
At Monarch School, we have been operating as a community school for decades. Monarch students, most of whom are experiencing homelessness, walk through our doors feeling invisible, carrying the heavy burden of housing insecurity and the host of physical, mental, and emotional health issues that emerge from this untenable condition.
Our well-trained team of onsite mental health clinicians and behavioral intervention specialists help these students feel seen. They learn to manage their emotional ups and downs in a supportive, therapeutic setting.
We also involve parents as partners as well as learners, offering them the opportunity to come to our campus to develop or nurture a skill, participate in parenting classes, prepare and share a meal, receive housing and social service support or simply discuss obstacles and potential solutions in a collegial setting. All of this has a real impact on their children.
Monarch School alum Zaira is an example of just how beneficial this approach can be. Zaira arrived at our school at the age of 15, after her mother decided to leave an abusive home situation and seek help for herself and her family.
Zaira’s teachers at Monarch soon knew something was not okay when she wasn’t turning in homework or participating in class. But thanks to Monarch’s hybrid educational and social support model, she was quickly able to build relationships with teachers, coaches and peers and receive the extra academic and emotional help she needed, catching up on a full academic year of studies.
Her family, too, was able to connect with resources to help them get through their incredible hardship. This allowed her to set her eyes on college, a dream she didn’t think was meant for her before.
Zaira went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in social work from San Diego State University. She is part of Monarch School again, except now she is the one offering help to students facing housing insecurity as a peer advocate and program assistant on our staff.
Community Schools Are Here as Partners
Community schools are unlikely to address every challenge facing marginalized people; that will require bigger and broader cooperation between governments, local organizations and schools. But community schools do make a difference — and they can help all schools provide more mental health and social support to their students.
Monarch School and other community schools are here to partner with local public schools to offer our expertise and help them quickly scale up social support for both students and their families. We need our school officials and educators to advocate for more of this model in San Diego schools, because we need each other to chart the course for our kids’ futures.
Afira DeVries is president and CEO of the Monarch School Project.