county boards
San Diego County’s Monarch School combats homelessness through education
Monarch School has served San Diego for over three decades, beginning as a one-room education center and expanding into a K-12 comprehensive school designed to educate homeless youth.
With more than 22,000 students in San Diego County identified as homeless, it’s clear there’s a great need for intervention. Monarch School — a K-12 public school operating through a partnership between the nonprofit Monarch School Project and the San Diego County Office of Education — is a unique campus serving the needs of some of those children. It’s the only school in the country dedicated exclusively to educating homeless students.

Monarch’s mission is to help the county’s most vulnerable children break the cycle of homelessness through education. The San Diego COE provides teachers and an accredited education, and the project supplements the school through academic and enrichment programs, including an after-school program, expressive arts therapy and counseling. The project also provides health care, clothes, food and family assistance.

“Education is the best chance children have to avoid poverty and homelessness,” said San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold. He cited figures from the National Center on Family Homelessness that children experiencing homelessness are eight times more likely to be asked to repeat a grade, three times more likely to be placed in special education classes and twice as likely to score poorly on standardized tests.

“These students face a range of educational hurdles, including getting to and from school, obtaining appropriate clothing and finding a quiet place to study. Monarch’s specialized programs help children overcome these barriers so they can focus on learning,” Gothold said.

Monarch began in 1987 as a drop-in center for youth experiencing homelessness and was staffed by a single teacher. The nonprofit Monarch School Project was later formed to provide support for the school. In the years since, the school has become a model and prototype for other communities to combat homelessness through education.

Women writing notes in a classroom
The average student comes to Monarch three years behind their grade level, yet for every six months a child is at Monarch, he or she typically progresses more than a year academically. The school’s year-round learning and other offerings make it a successful program for helping students close learning gaps.
“With the consistent support of my extended family at Monarch School, my prospects have changed, and so have I. Today, I care about myself and the people around me.”
A recent Monarch School graduate
“Our school staff members work in close collaboration with families and interagency partners to make Monarch School not only an exemplary school for students experiencing homelessness, but a top-quality school for any student,” said San Diego County Board of Education President Paulette Donnellon. “The outcome of this work is a school marked by innovation, caring, high-level learning and the highest-quality teaching.”

In 2013, the school moved to a two-story, 51,000-square-foot facility on 2.2 acres in downtown San Diego, where many Monarch students live in shelters or on the streets. The facility — a dramatic change from the previous site where about 150 students and 50 staff members crowded into 10,000 square feet — offers separate classrooms for each grade level, a science lab, library, literacy and tutoring centers, health clinic, career center, spaces for music instruction and performing arts and an auditorium that serves as cafeteria, gymnasium and event space. The campus also boasts playgrounds, outdoor recreation areas and a student garden, giving Monarch students new opportunities to learn and grow.

A recent graduate credits Monarch School for her success, saying, “With the consistent support of my extended family at Monarch School, my prospects have changed, and so have I. Today, I care about myself and the people around me. Monarch helped me discover who I am: an intelligent, caring creative young woman with a great deal to offer the world.”