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School on Wheels:

Tools for a Brighter Future

Children and teens who live in shelters, group homes and in vehicles with their families have a great disadvantage when it comes to education. In 1993, retired schoolteacher and Malibu resident Agnes Stevens founded School on Wheels to provide these kids with tutoring and other skills to give them a better chance for successful futures.

Today, the nonprofit offers services throughout Southern California and serves over 2,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade each year.

“We aim to reduce the educational gaps that inevitably present themselves when you are unhoused and going through a lot of changes—maybe moving from school to school or from place to place,” says Associate Volunteer Engagement Coordinator Eden Ettenger. The organization also ensures that students have backpacks and school materials throughout the year.

Eden started out as a tutor in her sophomore year of college and has been with the same student for the past four years.

“We started when he was in the 7th grade and living in a shelter,” she says. “He was pretty quiet to start, but over the years his growth has been really remarkable. He has opened up more but has also really grown into being someone who is diligent and takes accountability. I feel very lucky to have been able to watch that.”

Tutoring takes place in a variety of places and as with most other organizations, had to pivot during the pandemic.

“Pre-COVID, for families living in shelters or group homes, tutors would typically go to the site. For families living in motels or vehicles, they would meet them at a library, coffee shop or other public space.”

During COVID, School on Wheels went fully online. Every student received devices, hotspots and headphones, if needed.

“We're now trying to phase in some in-person tutoring at select shelters, primarily with our kindergarten through 4th grade students. We recognize that being in front of a computer and paying attention is much harder for these younger kids.”

Its Skid Row Learning Center has also recently reopened after a big renovation.

“About 30 to 40 students come after school,” says Eden. “We have volunteers and staff helping them with their homework and doing activities.”

Tutors usually meet with their students once a week for an hour, although some choose to expand on that. It starts out as an academic relationship where they help with homework and use the programs provided to improve in whatever academic subjects the student is struggling with. But then, explains Eden, it often turns into something more.

“It provides emotional support, safe spaces for kids and a consistent person each week to work with. We also have programs that try to develop social and emotional learning for our tutors and students.”

High schoolers can also take advantage of life skills programs. These focus on how to finish high school, how to get into college, how to manage money, what trade school is and more.

School on Wheels provides scholarships as well.

“Once a student has been with our organization for three months, they're eligible to apply for a scholarship for up to $500,” she says. This money allows kindergarten through 12th grade students to pursue extracurricular activities in order to learn a new skill, foster academic growth and/or improve their mental or physical health.

Its post-secondary scholarships are for those who have graduated from high school.

“They can apply once a year for up to four years for a maximum of $1,000 each year,” says Eden. This money can go toward college or vocational school.

Of course, School on Wheels cannot offer these much-needed services without assistance.

“Financial donations help us bolster our programs” she says. “School supplies are always helpful too.”

Another critical way to help is by volunteering. Eden says they’re always looking for people with a passion to work with their students. Volunteers need to be 18 years old, but do not need to have any particular skills.

“What it's really about is just being able to support learning with your student. You certainly don't need to know all the subjects through and through.”

Tutoring can be done in person or online, and there’s a lot of training and ongoing support available so tutors never feel like they’re on their own.

“We provide tutors with lesson plans and curriculum worksheets,” she says. “We give them as many tools as we possibly can to make them feel comfortable.”

To find out more, donate and/or volunteer, go to SchoolOnWheels.org/.