At the age of 9, Emily is a powerhouse of enthusiasm, and a bright button of inquisitiveness, knowledge and brainpower that puts her years ahead of her
third-grade peers — even those in the best private schools in the region.   

Emily is so smart that she should probably be bumped up a couple of grades, just to keep her from getting bored.

True, she attends an afterschool program, and about once each week gets a session with a tutor who’s focused primarily on her.

Just another private school kid, right? Or a kid with all the right privileges and connections, right?

Wrong.

Emily, brilliant Emily, lives in a homeless shelter on LA’s Skid Row and attends one of LA’s worst-performing public schools.

But Emily does go to an afterschool program, and does get tutoring — right around the corner from the shelter where she lives. She’s in a program for dozens of kids who walk some of the meanest streets in the world to get to where they spend the night.

Hundreds of kids call Skid Row shelters “home,” making their education problematic, to say the least.

Rising to that challenge, School On Wheels operates its Skid Row Learning Center (SRLC) inside a storefront at the epicenter of LA’s human misery. It’s a bright, cheery, and (most importantly) safe space, where kids get a filling snack, then an hour for homework and tutoring, followed by structured free time spent working puzzles, playing video games and reading. Despite the dysfunction in their lives, students often demonstrate unexpected self-control. When an older, larger student takes over a game, a young boy simply lets him, walks away to find something else to do, and explains, “He’s just that way.”

Every weekday afternoon and each Saturday morning the SRLC is open for the kids — then the rollup steel doors that keep it protected are rolled back down and securely locked.

Outside, reality is a continuous-looping post-apocalyptic zombie movie, with drugged-out and mentally-ill people staggering through the streets. What happens on those streets cannot be unseen, and these kids see it every day, sometimes spending years in shelters. It has an impact.

Emily is the stunning exception at the SRLC. It requires continued effort to keep her engaged because she’s so perspicacious. Most kids fall further and further behind in their studies, as life on Skid Row takes its toll on their study time and their ability to simply get a good night’s sleep.

A student at SRLC two grades ahead of Emily struggles to finish an assignment that Emily completed in a few minutes.

Another student, noticeably small for her age, is distracted by even quiet sounds in the room. She knows how to do her math, but loses focus and begins to yawn — likely because she couldn’t sleep through the night. She’s nearly three weeks late turning in the assignment.

That’s typical of student performance on Skid Row.

And things get worse, not better, when the holidays roll around.

Spring break for Skid Row kids means less time in the structured environment of school and SRLC and more time being passed around to other family members as their parents work — or try to find work. Ask a shelter kid what they did for spring break and the typical answer isn’t very exciting: “I just missed school and my friends.”

Most kids look forward to spring break. For Skid Row kids, it’s often just another upheaval to endure.

But days off from school aren’t always bad. Recently, a large group of kids from the SRLC took a bus ride to Pasadena on a school holiday and spent several hours enjoying pizza and skating at Pasadena’s Ice Skating Center. Made possible by a grant from the Looker Foundation, the trip was a chance for the kids to see the softer side of city life and experience something few of them ever had.

Most days at the SRLC, there are a few volunteer tutors in addition to the staff members who keep things on track. In an ideal world, there’d be one tutor for each child every day, but that’s not the case. There just aren’t enough folks who take that time out of their day to help the most-at-risk kids in our region.

You can make a significant difference in the lives of these children. Donating money to School On Wheels is a good start. Far better is donating your time to the kids themselves — even just an hour or two each week will work wonders.


Longtime education and social activist Rene Amy lives in Altadena. Emily isn’t the student’s real name, but she is quite real. SchoolOnWheels.org welcomes your financial support and volunteer hours.