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April 2014 Hero of the Month: Monarch School San Diego

This month I am highlighting the remarkable achievements of the supporters, faculty and students at the Monarch School as they celebrate the first anniversary of their new facility in East Village. Monarch is the only school in the United States exclusively for students who are homeless or impacted by homelessness.

The school’s humble beginnings can be traced to a small dilapidated building serving as a “drop-in” center where homeless children could go to get off the streets. Opened in 1987, the center eventually served an average of 40 homeless high school children. It was started and staffed by one very special teacher: Sandra McBrayer. By 1994, in recognition of her accomplishments, McBrayer was named United States Teacher of the Year.

Sandra was eventually replaced by Susan Armenta, and in 2001 the school was moved into a remodeled industrial building in Little Italy with an expanded faculty and countless mentor/volunteers.The school reached its capacity of 150 students in 2002–four years ahead of schedule.The 10,000 square foot facility was originally designed for three classrooms, a computer lab, a small health clinic, lunch room & kitchen, laundry so that the kids could wash their clothes, and showers because the kids often had nowhere to bath. Ralph Rubio, founder of Rubio’s Baja Grill, opened a “Cabo Cafe” on the campus, to give the students the opportunity to work in the restaurant, gain job skills, and earn money to help them and their families.

Although Monarch was originally conceived as a high school, it soon became apparent that more grades needed to be added because the high school kids did not want to leave their little brothers and sisters alone on the street during the day and began bringing them to the school and asking for help. By 2009 enough classrooms were added to be able to serve students from K-12. Unfortunately, the demand was so high that the school was turning away a 100 students a year because of space limitations.

In 2013, the school moved to a beautiful new 51,000 square foot facility on Newton Avenue near Petco Park. It now serves 350 children. The campus now has classrooms, an auditorium/gym, music room, and playgrounds equal to the best. The pictures and video which accompany this report were filmed at the new school and capture the special children who go there: children who have overcome severe challenges and are firmly on their way to happy, productive lives. Their stories are truly inspirational. I hope this report will inspire you to visit the school and meet Erin Spiewak the CEO and Joe Wiseman, the Principal, the very special faculty and the many volunteers and mentors at work.

Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education and Sen. Diane Feinstein, among others, have urged the Monarch model be adopted throughout the country.

Here is a little more background information for those who are interested. There are 18,000 children in San Diego County afflicted by homelessness. Some live in tents, cars, or homeless shelters. Some live with their family, crammed into a very small hotel or apartment unit. Most are reluctant to attend regular schools because of the stigma attached to homelessness. Andrea, age 15, said she loves Monarch because “no one judges me here.” Most students arrive at Monarch three years behind grade level. For every six months students spend at Monarch, they progress more than a year academically.

Some students spend only a short time at Monarch when their families fall on tough times, while searching for stable housing. The average is about one school year. Some stay for the majority of their education while their parents remain transient. Some leave when their parents’ situation stabilizes and then attend regular public schools. Some graduate and attend trade schools; some go to junior colleges, and some to four year universities.

Monarch School is a public-private partnership between the San Diego County Office of Education and the Monarch School Project, an IRS 501C3 non-profit. SDCOE provides the teachers, books, and pays the overhead. MSP raises over $750,000 a year for meals, clothing, counselors for the students and their parents, health and hygiene services, special tutors and an extensive after-school program. MSP also raised over $14 million to renovate the existing building that now serves as Monarch’s new home.

A brief note about two very special donors among so many. The new school has been named in honor of the extraordinary support of Nat and Flora Bosa. The Bosas and their company Bosa Development were instrumental in helping fund the remodeling of the school in Little Italy and the new East Village campus and have now donated over $5 million to Monarch. Inside the entrance to the school is the Bob Wilson Atrium in recognition of Bob’s $1 million contribution on behalf of his family and his company, The Fish Market restaurants.

On a personal note, our family has been involved with Monarch since 1997. My wife Julie Dillon is the Past President of the MSP Board of Directors and is currently Chair of The Monarch Advisory Council. We are honored to have a classroom at the new school dedicated to the Roberts and Dillon families. My mother, Edith Roberts, who passed away in 2010 at 101 was an enthusiastic supporter of Monarch and loved to hear the stories of children helped by the school.

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