Going to School in a Motel

F. Castro / SFVS

Ian Chan of School on Wheels helps Luis Macias log into the LAUSD portal. Macias has been living at the Hyland Motel with his parents for several months. Distance learning is more difficult for children who live in motels, officials say.

Luis Macias says he would rather be in a school classroom.

“I wish I could go back to school,” the 12-year-old said. “I feel so lonely here.”

But like his fellow 600,000-plus Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students, his classroom is a small screen on a school-issued device. On top of that, Macias had been having trouble logging into the LAUSD portal. It kept asking him to login repeatedly.

So, Ian Chan from School on Wheels was helping him with the problem on Monday, Aug. 24, inside a tent set up in the courtyard of the Hyland Motel.

Several volunteers from the nonprofit organization were at the site to help some 60 children who are also living there with their parents. And the volunteers said they will keep coming back every week to provide free tutoring, mentoring and other assistance.

They’re part of a pilot program called Kids First, a $770,000 project launched by Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez to provide educational support, life necessities and housing assistance throughout the LAUSD school year to 51 homeless families with 101 school-aged children living in three motels along the Sepulveda Boulevard corridor in Van Nuys and North Hills.

The two other motels in the pilot program are the Midtown Inn and Palm Tree.

“Homeless children living temporarily in motels have major challenges in all facets of their lives: education, healthcare, housing and food access,” said Martinez, who represents the 6th District. “This program is designed as a safety net to assist them in real time, identify specific areas of need with a focus on education and housing.

“We want to help these school-aged children succeed in and out of school and end the cycle of intergenerational poverty they and their families so often find themselves in.”

The goal, Martinez said, is to keep these kids from falling behind.

As it is, children living in one-room motels have the highest rate of truancy — up to 50 days in a school year. One student missed more than 65% of class time during the last school year. They lack the resources that families with a stable home environment take for granted: a space large enough to do homework, a desk and a bed all to themselves.

“We know that this is not how a child should be raised,” Martinez said. “We want to make sure the families have resources so they can leave this situation.”

Families will also receive mental health assistance and financial literacy classes, portable desks and headphones to make learning easier that will encourage school participation.

Teaching Parents, Too

The volunteers will not only be helping children with their computer needs, they’ll also be teaching parents how to use one as well.

That’s good news for Dolores Rivera, who has been living at the motel for eight months after she lost her apartment.

“Right now we don’t have work and it’s a difficult situation,” said Rivera, the mother of an 18-year-old and a 5-year-old.

“Thank God they’re helping us with food, shampoo and soap and everything else. It would really be helpful if they could come because I don’t know how to use a computer. It seems very difficult to me,” Rivera said.

Martina Guzman has been living at the motel for a year with her two children after her husband lost his job. She said the single motel room is not the best for studying, as her 12-year-old often does schoolwork on the bed. But she is grateful the school provided them with a tablet and an Internet hotspot.

“This way my children can study more,” she said.

 But even that is not always enough.

“Sometimes (the Internet) is too slow. Sometimes they can connect, sometimes they can’t,” Guzman said

Opening Week Problems

She’s not the only one complaining about connectivity.

Several other parents expressed their misgivings about distance learning on the San Fernando Valley Sun Facebook page when a posting on Aug. 20 asked for their feedback on the beginning of the new school year.

“Today was a total fail. I took the day off from work to help my son only to realize how the heck am I supposed to help them when I am at work! I had the hardest time logging in and the LAUSD website kept crashing. My daughter is doing great so far, but my son is already struggling understanding how to log in,”wrote Rosa Lopez.

“Picking up Ipads and books was stressful. Distance learning today wasn’t great. Both my kids were texting me throughout the day with issues logging in. I had to email the 4th grade teacher for help. My kids have no help at home and I can’t stop work. I am working in a facility with elderly patients as a LVN. I hope day 2 is better,” shared Jen E. Gomez.

Angela Chandler, the LAUSD Homeless Education Program coordinator, acknowledged the problems the district had on the first day of classes, particularly with Schoology, the distance learning program students in the district use.

She also admitted some hotspots may not provide fast Internet, in part because of the large number of students logging in at the same time.

“Internet speed has become an issue,” Chandler said.

For children living in motels or cars, connecting online is even more problematic.

“Imagine if you have a hotspot for five kids, that makes it a little tough,” Chandler said. 

Other agencies participating in this first-of-its-kind collaborative effort include the nonprofits LA Family Housing (LAFH), North Valley Caring Services (NVCS) and New Economics for Women (NEW).

These groups will meet regularly and will closely monitor the progress and needs of these students and their families for a full school year.

Funding for the program comes from the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program (HEAP).

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