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.