As First Place School weathers another storm, dedicated staff and volunteers keep things afloat
By Catherine Hinrichsen, Project Director, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness
Last Friday, five days before school was scheduled to start, the halls of First Place School were fairly quiet. In the classrooms of this school in Seattle’s Central District, brightly colored new backpacks stuffed with supplies were neatly lined up in the classroom cubbies. Volunteers like me from Seattle University‘s day of service were sprucing up the lunchroom bulletin boards and moving unneeded furniture into storage. In the kitchen, the “lunch lady,” Wube Worku, chopped vegetables and prepped the counters, pots and pans for a busy school year.
It all seemed cheerful and calm; but under the surface there was tension. Only days before, the school’s board had made the “business decision” to cut back from six grades — K-5 — to K-1 only. That decision left most of the school’s 90 homeless and vulnerable children without a school days before they were to start. For children and families in an already unstable situation, that’s a serious blow.
As if that weren’t stressful enough, principal Chris De Leon, teachers and volunteers also had to deal with a plumbing emergency on that Friday morning. It seemed almost too much of a metaphor, one that is ripe for overuse by a melodramatic blogger.
As school starts today — Wednesday, Sept. 7 — at First Place School, it’s worth reflecting on people like Wube, who’s there to feed and care for the children of First Place, just as she has for years. For a child whose life is upside down because of homelessness, school can be a safe and reassuring place; and nurturing and constant adults like Wube can help students in crisis feel connected to school. Teachers, staff, volunteers — they all make a difference.
Seattle’s First Place School was founded in 1989 as a private school and has traditionally served homeless and vulnerable children. While there are nearly 3,000 homeless children attending Seattle Public Schools throughout the district, First Place is the only school whose entire population consists of children who are homeless or in crisis. It has drawn respected donors, devoted teachers and committed volunteers, and it has provided a welcoming and encouraging environment for children who need extra support. A few years back it opened housing for some of its families. Recently it has faced some challenges; but instead of focusing on the problems, I want to reflect on the people who are trying to make it work, and share a glimpse of happier times that was created by one of our journalists.
In happier times?
I had met Wube in spring 2010 when our Journalism Fellows on Family Homelessness toured First Place School during one of our seminars, and I was pleased to see she is still there now. All our Fellows, student scholars and funders probably remember the delicious Ethiopian meal Wube had cooked for us six years ago. (Wube is a caterer when she’s not cooking for school.) After lunch, Wube’s teacher colleagues had hosted a panel for us, and were gracious and welcoming; they helped us all understand much more about the challenges of educating children living in unstable housing situations.
That visit in spring 2010 led to national news coverage that highlighted how well First Place was helping its students thrive. Our Journalism Fellow Lee Hochberg produced an important national story for the PBS NewsHour about whether schools are doing enough to help homeless students. The first thing you see in his excellent piece is the faces of students at First Place School; take a look, because it’s still one of the best-reported explanations ever of the federal McKinney-Vento protections for homeless students. In fact, we believe his report helped bring about some important changes at a large local school district.
Moving on after turbulent year
First Place entered rough waters a few years go. In 2014 it became First Place Scholars, the state’s first charter school; it soon experienced some challenges that threatened its existence, including being put on probation by the Washington State Charter School Commission. (I won’t get into the charter school debate, or the full extent of the issues at First Place; enterprising readers can look that up easily enough.)
Then the Washington state Supreme Court ruled in December 2015 that charter schools are unconstitutional. At that point, the First Place leaders decided to revert from a charter school to a tuition-free private school for the rest of the 2015-16 school year.
For the coming year, I have to believe that the school staff was optimistic and that the outlook was bright. After all, they were advertising for a new teaching position this summer. They had a successful fundraiser in July and they got a memorable visit from Russell Wilson. In a podcast with Seattle Medium in July, the school’s new CEO and executive director Dr. Wanda Billingsley said that it had been a”turbulent year” but they’re moving forward, “stronger than ever.” She noted she’d had an inspiring conversation with Dr. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone when he had been in town for Seattle University’s commencement speech. Two weeks ago, teachers met for their Summer Institute; this Facebook post describing that day shows a “small but mighty” team devoted to their students.
But right around the time of the Summer Institute, the board decided to eliminate grades 2-5. Parents were left scrambling to find new schools for their children, and I wonder what’s going to happen to all the devoted teachers. Apparently, Seattle Public Schools has been working with the families to place the children in other schools. But as a parent, I can only imagine how disruptive that would be if your plans were to change so dramatically one week before school starts, especially if you are emotionally invested in your child’s school and have carefully planned your daily life around getting them to one specific place — even if you live in a stable housing situation.
But maybe this business decision is the right one and maybe First Place will weather this storm, recover and get strong again.
Making a difference for homeless students
More than 35,000 schoolchildren experienced homelessness in Washington state in the 2014-2015 school year. On our project, we’ve written a lot about the importance of school to children who are homeless and what school staff can do to help them, in partnership with Firesteel; we’ve gathered stories about students experiencing homelessness; and we’ve supported our partners like Columbia Legal Services in their work to pass laws to improve the way we help homeless students. When I see something like what’s happening at First Place, it breaks my heart — but it makes me feel re-committed to this work. Like the teachers at First Place said on their Facebook page, the reason why we are here is “…the KIDS!”
I was one of the 10 or so Seattle U volunteers at First Place on that Friday and frankly my contributions were minimal. I pulled old staples and thwacked in new ones as my colleagues did a bang-up job beautifying the walls of the lunchroom. I moved papers and electronics out of the path of the seeping water, and then later helped mop up water with a fleece blanket (tip: they are very absorbent). I had been feeling somewhat down about what difference my little gesture could really make, in the face of such need. But as I was walking away to get back to campus for a meeting, I saw one of the erstwhile volunteers, our SU Controller, Joe — who had gotten right in there and battled alongside Principal De Leon when the pipe was spewing hot water everywhere — still at it, bailing out a huge bin of water out the window, trying to dry out a lower floor.
How could I stay disheartened by something like this flooding setback — and even the larger issues at First Place, or student homelessness overall — when I see so many people who care?
I am not going to end homelessness among students by mopping up water, but I can help make the daily life of those students better by doing it — and then telling people what I see. I can help by sharing stories and working with our partners to create change. I can shine a spotlight on dedicated people like Wube Worku and the staff at First Place School and everyone else who works to help children who are homeless thrive. They inspire me to keep doing this work. I hope it inspires others too.
What You Can Do
- Read about solutions like the programs that are being implemented this fall because of the new Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act. This post by Firesteel has lots of great ideas for taking action, including participating in The Seattle Public Library’s Oct. 29 “Create Change” event on art and advocacy (we’re a partner for this exciting day and for the overall community program).
- Volunteer for First Place School or other organizations that help homeless students.
- Check out these three-minute StoryCorps recordings we gathered, by Maggie, Taylor, Lika, Erika and Ashley, in which they talk about how homelessness has affected their school experience. Share them with family and friends.
- Catch up with StoryCorps storyteller Ashley and find out how she’s faring now, in a new post on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations’ “Impatient Optimists” blog.
- After you watch Lee Hochberg‘s report, read about the rights of homeless students in the very helpful brochure produced each year by Seattle-King County Coalition on Homelessness.
- Visit Schoolhouse Washington and sign up for analysis, ideas and advocacy to end student homelessness, and watch for a big announcement from them Sept. 14.
If you’re interested in Wube Worku’s catering business, you can call her at WW Food Service, Inc., 206/251-6587.
Editor’s Note: This is a reply to the blog post that we received Sept. 14 via email from First Place board president Dawn Mason. We are posting it here with her permission.
Thank you for the nice blog article you did and featured Wube and the inspiration for this email.
Wube is indeed a First Place treasure. An update:
The renovation crew, Kimberly and Scippio Dunn spent the entire Labor Day weekend getting things dried out and school opened on time on September 7. Reggie the plumber who does most of his work pro bono and when we do pay his less than prevailing wages invoice he returns 50% of it. It is you, Reggie, and so many who bring what they can to First Place that makes it possible.
First Place has such a great reputation and I believe people who have not been there think it a large organization. Considering all that gets done there, who can fault them for thinking this.
It is and always has been a community based solution for children who are mostly the least fortunate. How does a family without housing, or with power turned off, or without enough to buy food for three nutritious meals for the month get by? The complexities are without ability to know if we have not lived with instability. Your work on the homelessness project is needed and appreciated. The media has portrayed homelessness in ways that appears to be primarily males, on the street or in tent camps creating havoc for others. This is so far from reality. The invisible homeless are our children and their primarily mothers. Domestic Violence plays a major role in homelessness for women and children.
I was at the bank last week and a teller who has waited on me for the past ten years, told me she is about to be homeless. She tells me this has shocked her and you could see it her face and her being close to tears. She has lived for 11 years in the same home, renting. The owner is selling it. She has not found another due to the high rents in Seattle. She has school age children, who will be displaced as she thinks that she has to move out of Seattle, where she was born, to find affordable rent. This is the risk of being homeless and if she does not find housing, she says she will need to find a shelter but they will not take her 18 year old son and she would rather live in a car, over leaving him to his own devices he is not an adult and can not fend for himself. This is the reality of homelessness.
As to the program changes at First Place. The vote of the people to provide early learning for children who represent the academic gap that is not closing for the population of our mission is key to our decision to focus on prevention over remediation. I have traveled several times to Kenya and see the positive outcomes of the Gates Foundation to vaccinate young children so that they can withstand the many diseases that take young lives. It was a decision that got criticism for not investing in the cures. But it is working, I got to meet and see children and they are able to live healthier lives. First Place has chosen to see early learning and primary education as an inoculation that allows poor children to not fall into the gap over closing the gap. We must leave that to our public school systems. They have the funding and means to do this work. Not charging a tuition will always be a struggle for First Place. So we do what we can with what we have for the number of families we can serve and help. We made a decision to return to being a private school last December and opened the Doreen Cato Early Learning Academy at about the same time. Creating a seamless Early Learning and primary education makes sense for what we want to accomplish.
The children who had to return to Seattle and other public schools did so as students who had at least one year of a First Place education. We will have to believe that having been at First Place and with parents who now know how to be effectively engaged will make a difference for them. They know that we have not abandoned them. We provided school supplies and for many school clothing. They know to stay connected as so many of our alum continue to do. First Place model kept students for only three years and returned them to public schools in the past and many of our students had been with us for three years. As a charter school, this changed this. A pre school child can now be with First Place for five years if they enter at three years old.
It is a complex population and an expensive one to serve. This is often lost on even the most professional education administrator both public and private. With partnerships and support from the abundance of caring and privileged among us in Seattle First Place will prevail for homeless and least fortunate children and families as First Place has for 30 years. Our housing programs; transitional (2 years) subsidized and section 8 project (permanent) are helping families stabilize. We house approximately 80 individuals; adults and children in three locations. This goes unnoticed in ways that our education programs do not. What First Place needs right now is what our families need, grace and a chance to breathe. Our board is majority emerging leaders, African American professionals. They are learning to do this work as volunteers, they have careers and families. And they learn from our families to be resilient, non complaining and they are wonderful. If we are to sustain the work of First Place, we must train for the future, listen to new ways that they bring as solutions. I am learning every day from them.
Reggie the plumber who does much of his work for us pro bono, came and fixed the pipe. The City of Seattle has just granted FP a building improvement matching grant of $100,000 from the Dept of Neighborhoods. I believe you will see the value of the decision to put into place for our families the preventive that will follow their children in a positive way.
I look forward to a meeting with you after we settle into the school year. We thank you for your volunteering and, caring about First Place. And for the wonderful article featuring Wube.