Distance learning has been a challenge for all students and their families, but for the estimated one out of 20 children in California experiencing homelessness, the challenges can seem insurmountable.
The pandemic has intensified the economic disparities, putting the neediest students at a further disadvantage.
“I am very scared and terrified for our families and our students,” said Charles Evans, the executive director of School on Wheels. “They’ve had to overcome so much with being homeless and then you add that other layer of distance learning.”
The lack of access to digital and technology resources is not a new phenomenon facing school-aged children of color and children experiencing poverty. A recent study found that, nationally, around 17% of children are unable to complete their homework due to limited internet access. This “digital divide” and resulting “homework gap” mirrors trends in California, where about 1 in 6 school-aged children lack access to the internet at home. These numbers grow for the state’s most vulnerable children: students of color, low-income students, English Learners, students with disabilities, and homeless youth.
This week is Digital Inclusion Week. Digital Inclusion Week is an online event held October 5-9, 2020 to raise awareness of solutions addressing home internet access, personal devices, and local technology training and support programs. Visit the official website to learn more and get involved. To celebrate this event we are spotlighting some of our recent efforts and partnerships as we work to bridge the digital divide for our students as part of our digital learning initiative.
Online Tutoring for All Students
In 2014, School on Wheels established its online tutoring program as a response to reach students that were geographically difficult to reach in Southern California. Our online tutoring program provides a live online classroom in which students and tutors interact synchronously through audio, video, and a shared whiteboard. From 2014 to 2020, School on Wheels has served close to 2,000 students in hard-to-reach areas such as Apple Valley, Lancaster, and San Diego with the help of hundreds of online tutors from 26 states across the country. We would not have been able to serve many of these students through our in-person tutoring programs.
Prior to the onset of COVID-19 in March of 2020, School on Wheels provided 90% in-person tutoring and 10% online tutoring. As a response to the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, we have transitioned 100% of our tutoring online, and we have reached almost 900 students since March. While BigBlueButton is our main online tutoring software, students without robust internet and/or technology utilize other tools such as FaceTime and Google Duo to connect with their tutors. School on Wheels students and tutors are meeting exclusively online for the foreseeable future.
Summer Rewards Program
Our Summer Rewards Program was a massive hit! Any student who completed at least 5 full tutoring sessions between July 1st and August 17th qualified for a free device. Most qualifying K-3 students received Amazon Kindles or Amazon Fires (Kids Edition), students in grades 4-8 received Android tablets, and students in grades 9-12 received Chromebooks. 303 students qualified, participating in 2,878 hours of tutoring over the summer (thanks to the help and support of our amazing volunteer tutors)!
Technology access is crucial to students’ success during this time and we are so thankful to be able to provide devices that our students can keep and utilize to attend school and engage in learning.
Bel Air Internet Partnership
School on Wheels and Bel Air Internet are working together to bridge the digital divide and provide free high-speed Internet access for children experiencing homelessness in Southern California. Since January of 2019, BAI has provided its services to 6 of our sites. As a result, over 400 of our students have regular access to the Internet that they would otherwise not have.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bel Air Internet has installed high-speed internet/WiFi at 3 of our sites (with others in the works): Orange County Rescue Mission (Village of Hope) in Tustin, Motorcycle Riders in South Los Angeles, and HomeAid Family Care Center in Orange.
We are incredibly lucky to have such a great partner who helps us grow our impact and provide learning opportunities to more students.
We have been able to purchase many tablets, Chromebooks, and other necessary hardware for our students with donated funds. In addition, we have had many generous technology donors, including Microsoft, AT&T, T2 Tech Group, and PBSSoCal.
Today I’m happy to share a short video I made about an extraordinary LA artist named Angela Sanchez. Angela is the author of a children’s book series called “Scruffy and Egg”. The series is based on stories that Angela and her father would tell each other as they experienced homeless together while Angela was still in high school. Angela’s stories reach children and adults alike and place dignity and empathy at the forefront of the conversation on homelessness. I’m truly grateful to Angela for being so open with me and for allowing me to tell a small part of her story.
Our students living in shelters, motels, group homes, and on the streets of Southern California are about to start what will be one of the most challenging school years of their young lives and the odds not stacked in their favor.
The way we serve our students may look a little different this year; still, our mission is the same. Watch Executive Director Charles Evans and President of the Board Josh Fein talk about 2019 and the changes 2020 has brought and read messages from our students, parents, and volunteers. Your work as a tutor, donor, cheerleader, and advocate for kids devastated by homelessness is more important now than ever. Please read about the impact you have made in our annual report,
In late June, 40 desktop models were wiped of their data, sanitized, boxed up and sent to Children’s Bureau, a Los Angeles-area nonprofit that supports at-risk children and their parents. Another 30 laptops went to School on Wheels, which provides free tutoring and mentoring services for homeless children in six counties, including Orange County.
School on Wheels Executive Director Charles Evans said homeless students have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic, as the shift toward distance learning has removed personal connections and made technology ownership essential.
“A lot of our students are already behind as it is,” Evans said. “When they don’t have access to a teacher or to resources, it makes it a lot easier for them to fall even further behind.”
Since shelter-in-place restrictions began, School on Wheels has had to find creative ways to rebuild its erstwhile in-person tutoring model into a virtual one. The organization is actively seeking funds and hardware to accommodate students living in and learning from motels, shelters and vehicles.