A one-room schoolhouse opened Wednesday at a shelter for the homeless in North Hollywood, the first such school in Los Angeles and one of only a handful of similar facilities in the nation.
The bilingual "schoolhouse," where 30 students from grades one through six begin classes next week, is the centerpiece of a $1.1-million expansion of the Trudy and Norman Louis Valley Shelter. The center is named after two major donors.
The school will function as an annex of the nearby Arminta Street Elementary School, where children from the shelter previously attended classes. It will be staffed by the Los Angeles Unified School District at a yearly cost of about $104,000.
When classes begin next week, the first students will include Mario Gomez, a husky 10-year-old from Mexico. During an interview Wednesday, he eyed the indoor slide and festive posters in the atrium-style classroom as his mother described how the family of six lived in a van for the first half of this year.
Guadalupe Gomez, 29, said her husband makes $220 a week as a marble cutter. After being forced to leave an apartment they shared, the family ended up paying $100 rent to park the van in a Pacoima driveway. Gomez washed clothes almost every night so the children would have something to wear to school.
"It was too crowded," Mario said in Spanish, thumbing through a science book on a table next to him.
His mother, who said the family emigrated to Los Angeles two years ago, said the Valley Shelter is "the best place we have lived. We have beds for everybody. The kids eat well. They are much happier."
Although Gomez said her four children rarely missed school when they were homeless, she said having the school in the shelter will make things easier on the family as they await placement in subsidized or transitional housing.
The Valley Shelter provides an educational safety net for such children, said Joann Zgonc, coordinator of district programs for homeless students. The children will participate in assemblies and other group activities at Arminta Street school, Zgonc said. Families generally stay at the shelter for no more than three months, after which they are placed in subsidized or transitional housing.
The shelter, housed in a converted former motel on Lankershim Boulevard, is run by L.A. Family Housing Corp., which builds housing for homeless and low-income families. As a result of the expansion, the center now features a new medical and mental health center, food and clothing banks and 20 additional apartment-style units, for a total of 80 units that house up to 200 people a day.
About half the money came from private donors and half from state and city grants, said Arnold Stalk, director of L.A. Family Housing. Shelter employees are paid largely with federal funds.
At a ceremony attended by residents, volunteers and government officials Wednesday, Supervisor Ed Edelman told the gathering: "The homeless need more than food and shelter. They need a full range of services to get them back to where they can function. . . . What is being done here should be a model for what should be done in other parts of the country."
There are at least 10,000 homeless children in Los Angeles County, according to a recent study by Shelter Partnership Inc., an agency that assists a network of nonprofit groups. School district surveys last year found 828 homeless children enrolled and estimated that at least another 2,300 were not enrolled, figures that officials say are clearly low because 268 of the 650 schools surveyed could not identify homeless students.
School districts in Long Beach, San Diego and Sacramento also have mini-schools in homeless shelters, according to Los Angeles school officials. About half a dozen additional shelter-based programs exist around the country, said Lisa Mihaly of the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group for poor children.
Mihaly said the programs deserve great praise. Nonetheless, she said that she and other advocates for the poor oppose educating homeless children in shelters rather than in traditional schools, because they say it further segregates and stigmatizes them.
"Homelessness is not a reason to segregate children from mainstream schools," she said. "It's better for kids to go to school in a normal, stable setting. We would prefer that the energy go to pushing schools to accommodate homeless kids."
But Mihaly conceded what Zgonc and others point out: Numerous studies show how difficult it is for homeless children to get an education. Homeless children are far more likely to repeat grades and miss school than other low-income children, according to a 1989 report by the Children's Defense Fund. They often run into unresponsive bureaucracies and lack immunizations and required documents.
The special needs of the students dictated the design of the multilevel classroom with its high ceilings and soft colors, said Stalk, who is also the architect. He said homeless children often require development of motor skills slowed by years of confinement in squalid motel rooms or vehicles, as in the case of the Gomez family.
But as Mario Gomez took in the slide, the fire pole and the elaborate staircase at his new school Wednesday, it seemed inconceivable that he had spent six months of his life living in a van.
"I like this," he said. "This is beautiful."