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Telfair Elementary: The heart of LAUSD’s homeless crisis could become ground zero for change

Taylor Swaak | November 27, 2018

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Students in a Telfair Elementary classroom. (Courtesy of LA Unified)

*Updated Nov. 28

If LA Unified’s growing student homeless crisis had an epicenter, Telfair Elementary in the northeast San Fernando Valley would be it. Last year the school had the highest percentage of homeless students; so far this year, it’s tied for first place.

And as the district explores expanding support for its estimated 16,000 homeless students, Telfair could be first in line for help — and a model for the rest of LA Unified.

The school board earlier this month passed a resolution asking Superintendent Austin Beutner to study the possibility of housing homeless students and their families on district property, such as in school gyms and parking lots. This is the first time the district is exploring this option, said Kelly Gonez, the school board member for Board District 6, where Telfair is located, and the author of the resolution.

• Read more: LAUSD board approves study of housing homeless students and their families on district properties

When asked at the Nov. 13 meeting what he thought of the resolution, Beutner reminded board members that “our No. 1 priority is to educate children.” He then said he’d like to start at one school, Telfair in Pacoima, instead of a broader surveying of the district’s schools.

“If we start at Telfair, and we can prove to everybody here that we can solve [homelessness] at Telfair, then I think we can solve it in more communities,” Beutner said.

Telfair is central to a four-part Los Angeles Times series this week on childhood poverty. School principal José Razo is also highlighted, recalling an impoverished childhood upbringing that left him — like many of his students now — living in a garage.

“For me, it’s personal,” Razo told the LA Times. “I do see myself in the faces of the students who walk through these hallways.”

LA School Report talked to Razo and Gonez’s District 6 team about what homelessness looks like at Telfair. Here’s what we learned about the school:

The numbers

A reported 24 percent, or 182 of Telfair’s 739 students, were homeless during the 2017-18 school year. This was the highest rate reported in any of LA Unified’s 1,100 schools.

The district considers students “homeless” when their living situations include residing in shelters or cars, doubling up with other families or living on the street.

That percentage has dropped at Telfair this school year, however — declining enrollment is a factor — with an estimated 18 percent of the student population homeless. Telfair is now tied with Langdon Avenue Elementary in North Hills for the district’s highest percentage of homeless students “to the best of our knowledge,” Megan VandenBos, Gonez’s chief of staff, wrote in an email. She added that those figures could change as the year progresses.

Comparatively, about 4.3 percent of the more than 71,000 students across Board District 6 are homeless.

Razo, Telfair’s principal for the last five years, said the high number of homeless students could be the result of the school’s diligence “in making sure that our students are identified that need to be identified” via the district’s Student Residency Questionnaire.

“We do the best job we can to make sure that we have [the questionnaires] completed,” he said. The questionnaire, which asks about students’ living situations, is given to every family at the beginning of the school year and whenever new students enroll. “Whenever we get an incomplete [form], we send it back. We follow up with a phone call.”

(A section of LA Unified’s Student Residency Questionnaire)

But that diligence in finding and supporting those who are homeless sometimes means the school loses students — and part of its state funding.

“Some of our families have been able to get Section 8 housing, find better living conditions, and when that happens, they move out of our area. …We have that quite often,” Razo said. He recalled two sisters who recently moved to Palmdale, more than 40 miles away, because their family found a home to rent.

The fifth-grader and third-grader were “great students; they were involved in the mariachi program, they were very involved in the school,” he said. “But there were four families living in a three-bedroom home, and majority male. So the mother, with her two girls, decided they’d rather try to be on their own. And the only place they could do that was in Palmdale.”

Razo estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of homeless students at his school are still unreported. But he dispelled the notion that families at Telfair, where 98 percent of the students are Latino, might be concerned about filling out the form for immigration reasons.

“I have a really good relationship with the majority of my families and the community around me,” he said. “So they don’t have that fear, and they know that [their information] is not going to go somewhere.”

Rather, it’s likely feelings of shame that keep parents from disclosing their living situations. Families are “afraid of the stigma that comes with it, of considering themselves homeless in that situation,” he said.

Homeless and unprepared for school

Like the sisters who moved to Palmdale, most of the homeless students at Telfair live “doubled up, tripled up, quadrupled up” in homes, Razo said. And it’s wholly because of the high cost of housing.

Families in the area are paying a median price of $1,500 a month to live in garages, and anywhere between $800 to $1,000 to rent a room in someone’s home, he said. “The cost of living, cost of ownership or renting — it’s out of control.”

Razo added that this instability impedes students’ readiness every day for school. Homeless students crammed in a home with other families, for example, can be sleep deprived.

“You don’t necessarily get a good night’s sleep if you’re sleeping on the floor, or if you’re sleeping in the living room and every time somebody comes home you’re waking up,” Razo said.

And for those living temporarily in hotels or motels, there is the constant fear of whether their families will be able to pay the bill.

“The worry that our kids have to go through at their young age is probably the biggest obstacle that they have to go through,” he said.

Working toward solutions

Razo said he’s currently on a task force that provides feedback to Beutner on “experiences and challenges we face on our school sites.” He recalled first meeting with Beutner shortly after he became superintendent in May.

“From the beginning, [homelessness] was one of the things that I brought to his attention,” Razo said. Razo was hesitant to comment on whether Telfair would be willing or physically able to host students on its property prior to the release of Beutner’s report.

At his school so far, however, there has been no collaboration with the city and county in trying to aid the homeless, Razo said.

On a districtwide scale, LA Unified currently partners with LA County Office of Education through a homeless liaison services grant. This grant enables 12 sites countywide to twice a week provide homeless supports, including school materials for students and information for parents on “the importance of regular, on-time attendance,” VandenBos wrote in an email. She added that the closest site to Telfair is in North Hollywood — about seven miles away.

While the number of LA Unified’s students experiencing homelessness declined last year, it is projected to rise again this year.

During the 2017-18 year, 15,665 students were reported homeless — considerably lower than the two years prior, which saw a peak of 17,258 students in 2016-17. That’s out of about 486,000 students this year in the district’s traditional schools.

The decline last year could have been due to parents or students not wanting to identify themselves as homeless through LA Unified’s Student Residency Questionnaire, a district spokeswoman said. Parents are not required to fill out the form.

Another reason could be that the Student Residency Questionnaire translates in Spanish to “Cuestionario Sobre La Residencia Estudiantil,” which some Spanish-speaking parents might misinterpret as an inquiry about their children’s and their own residency status.

The district is looking into changing the title of the document, the spokeswoman said.

Beutner told LA School Report earlier this month that moving forward, he expects the city and county to play an outsized role in helping the district locate and create housing for its homeless students. The county secured $1.2 billion in 2016 through the voter-backed Proposition HHH to aid the homeless and build affordable housing.

“We are helping educate that [homeless] student,” he said. “We’d like the city and the county to help us house those students and provide support to their families.”

In response to the L.A. Times series, Beutner, Razo and Gonez sent a letter Wednesday to Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, emphasizing the necessity of that collaboration.

“We want to prepare every student to thrive in college, career and life. But the students highlighted by the Times may struggle to stay on that path without more support to overcome the crises their families face,” the letter states. “We ask you to work with us.”

*This article has been updated to add Wednesday’s letter from Beutner, Razo and Gonez to city and county officials.

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