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Barr: Is L.A. County serious about educating homeless kids? Tuesday’s LACOE vote will tell us a lot

Steve Barr | August 16, 2021

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A man sweeps the pathway in front of a homeless encampment at Venice Beach, on June 30, 2021 in Venice, California.

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It’s no secret that homelessness has reached devastating levels in Los Angeles. The L.A. Times editorial board called the situation “a national disgrace” — and that was three years before COVID  and the economic downturn exacerbated the emergency even further.

But what some people don’t know or forget is that the crisis goes beyond public health, economics and housing — it’s a public education crisis too.

Thousands of students in Los Angeles are living on the street, in shelters or churches, or are regularly moving from one temporary apartment to another. Our public schools are not equipped to reach these students. We’ll never know how many slip through the cracks of the education system.

I’ve spent the past year building a program — a free public boarding school on 81 acres in the Angeles National Forest — to intervene in the lives of students experiencing homelessness. With the help of organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, my team has been busy recruiting students who might otherwise not enroll in school anywhere.

Our school, Future Is Now Prep, is weeks away from launching. But now, one year after granting our charter, the Los Angeles County Office of Education board is suddenly considering revoking it.

Is L.A. County serious about educating homeless kids? Tuesday’s LACOE vote will tell us a lot.

I’m not new to the challenges of creating new educational models to serve vulnerable students who can’t be reached through traditional means. Twenty years ago I founded Green Dot Public Schools, which today operates 19 campuses in California and graduates more students than any charter network in the country. Working in proud partnership with the state’s teachers union, our schools have proven that zip code does not determine destiny.

I founded FIN Prep to build on this work, to serve the hardest-to-reach students with a targeted approach combining academic rigor, stability, and social emotional learning. Last year, the LACOE Board voted overwhelmingly to give us a shot. Since then, we have been working with everyone from parole officers to youth juvenile justice groups.

We have found a large and urgent need for an educational program designed to serve kids who need something different than the traditional public school approach.

We were floored when LACOE staff abruptly asked the board to terminate our charter. Staff claim that because we have not recruited all of our students by now, the school should not get the chance to open. Eight weeks out, many of our kids don’t know where they are going to sleep the next few nights, let alone where they are going to school. We have been warned by schools who serve similar populations that up to half of students often make decisions in the last two weeks before opening.

The staff recommendation to abruptly rescind FIN Prep’s charter — before the school is even able to open its doors — is without precedent, a clear violation of the law and, most importantly, an act of harm toward the homeless students, foster youth and young people involved in the juvenile justice system who right now lack the educational opportunities that FIN Prep promises to provide.

If they prevent FIN Prep from launching, L.A. County officials will be working against the needs of our region’s hardest to serve kids.

Los Angeles’ public school system is not equipped to serve our region’s growing homeless population. The LACOE Board has already approved FIN Prep’s charter with a 5-1 vote. Now the school needs to actually get its shot at educating students. In trying to prevent this new school from even getting the chance to succeed, LACOE staff appears to be tone deaf to L.A.’s youth homelesness crisis.

With homelessness surging, and without any clear plan to better serve L.A.’s homeless kids, the last thing L.A. County should be doing is kneecapping educators who are trying to help solve the problem.

My deepest hope is that Tuesday afternoon, the LACOE Board gives FIN Prep a chance to make good on our promise — to create a bold new learning environment that will transform the lives of our region’s most vulnerable kids and help us tackle Los Angeles’ most persistent humanitarian crisis.

Steve Barr is the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates 19 public charter campuses in California, and FIN Prep, whose mission is to change education for marginalized student populations and to support effective educator-led initiatives that lead to improvements in the classrooms, at school sites, throughout districts, and in unions. 

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