You won't find a school like San Diego's Monarch School anywhere else in the country. The school serves homeless children exclusively.
Tara Barrows, a volunteer and student event coordinator at Monarch School, sat down with "20/20" to explain how the school works.
Q: What is Monarch School?
A: Monarch School is really unique. We are a public school that exclusively serves homeless kids. So we are a public-private partnership, and how that works is we're a public school through the San Diego County Office of Education. Our teachers are credentialed. Our kids take standardized tests. We're held to the same standards as any public school. But all of our students are homeless, so we have our own nonprofit -- the Monarch School project -- that supplements with an expressive art therapy program, a free after-school program every day after school, a huge volunteer program that provides gently used clothes, new shoes, underwear, toiletry items. We just provide a lot of services that are beyond the scope of a traditional public school so that our kids can really focus on academics and do well.
Q: What does it mean to be homeless?
A: Coming to work at Monarch School definitely changed the definition of homeless for me, personally. When the average person thinks of someone homeless, they think of what we see, and that's transient, often mentally ill, often addicted people living on the streets under bridges, under stoops, begging for change on the street corner. That's what we picture, but it's really not the case. Most people who are being impacted by homelessness are children. Our kids are mostly living in the shelters downtown, in low-rental motels, or they're living doubled or tripled up with other families. Homelessness doesn't necessarily mean they don't have a roof over their head, it means there's no stability, there's no comfortable place to just call home at night.
Q: Can anybody be homeless?
A: Absolutely. I think that this past year at Monarch has really shown us that anyone can become homeless. Our school grew. We were serving about 100 students. In October, all of a sudden we had 170. Our numbers just skyrocketed, and I think that is really a testament to how families are being impacted by the economy. One day, everything's fine, and the next day there's a hurricane in Texas, and your business and your house is gone, and you're homeless. Or, all of sudden, you have it all and your husband's alcoholism becomes out of control, and he's abusive and you have to get your kids and get out of there. It's been amazing to get to know our families and hear their stories and see how easily things could change overnight.
Q: How is a school just for homeless youth even legal?
A: The McKinney Vento Act was designed to make going to school an easier experience for homeless kids. Before, when a family became homeless and they were living in a shelter, they would have to leave school and go to the neighborhood school in that shelter's area. That is really problematic for families dealing with homelessness because you have kids who are constantly moving around and having to move in and out of schools. Paperwork becomes a challenge. Constant disruption becomes a challenge. This law was passed to make this easier, so when kids were homeless they had a few options. They could stay at their school that they were at when they became homeless, they could go to the neighborhood school close to the shelter and, here in San Diego, the kids have a third option: They could come to Monarch. We existed before this legislation was passed. We've been around since 1988, and when that law was passed the idea was to get rid of a need for any special school for homeless kids. But we were given a special waiver to keep doing what we're doing.