A few years back, during a summer school demonstration of a working solar oven constructed from cardboard and aluminum foil, Susan Finley noticed one little girl taking remarkably detailed notes.
Finley asked the girl why she was copying everything so carefully. The answer was, a solar oven could cook food for her family, which was all but homeless and living in a local campground. They couldn’t even afford firewood, Finley learned.
“You can’t make assumptions about the kids who are in At Home At School,” said Finley, an associate professor of education at Washington State University Vancouver who launched the program just over a decade ago. “You can’t even assume they all have working stoves and ovens.”
At Home At School got started in 2002 when Finley, whose scholarship centers on the education of underserved, impoverished students, heard from a local homeless shelter that the place was seeing a spike in families with school-aged children. Children who are homeless or impoverished — whose families are always on the move, dealing with want, coping with unpredictable circumstances — can have a tough time staying in school, she said, and even when they manage it, they don’t feel “at home at school.”
Their peers don’t really understand them. Harried educators may not bother with them. Finley recalled one homeless boy who was assigned to a new classroom and was immediately seated in the very back by his teacher, who figured — accurately — that the boy wouldn’t be there longer than two weeks.
“That’s two weeks of his life lost. Every day with these kids is important,” said Finley. The kids in her fledgling program overwhelmingly reported feeling uncomfortable, unwelcome and unnoticed in traditional classrooms, she said. “Teachers think school is a sanctuary, a place to get away from the hard things, the bad feelings,” said Finley. “But for these kids, school is where they felt out of place.”
Finley’s solution: an appealing, arts-based curriculum that incorporates traditional subject matters in real-world ways. The individual attention and creative opportunities are designed to engage kids who struggle with educational barriers borne of poverty and instability at home — such as moving between schools all the time. “For some of the kids we’ve known, AHAS has been more consistent in their lives than the regular school system,” Finley said.
At least one regular school system earns kudos from Finley for its participation in AHAS. Evergreen Public Schools has counselors who are in touch with the problems of poverty and homelessness, she said, and make frequent referrals of students to AHAS. Also, the district provides free bus service to pick up students at local homeless shelters and transport them to AHAS.
“Evergreen is way ahead of the game,” Finley said. Volunteers do the driving in other areas, she said.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, Evergreen buses took dozens of AHAS children to Clark County’s 78th Street Heritage Farm in Hazel Dell so they could get down in the dirt, help plant a new Youth Garden, and feel at home with food.
“We choose a theme every year and this year it’s food,” said Finley. “We are emphasizing healthy eating and ‘food justice,’ ” that is, the burgeoning movement to steer lower-income people toward healthy, local, affordable produce — and away from convenient, mass-produced junk.
Finley also praised local foodie Warren Neth and his Slow Food Southwest Washington nonprofit. Neth said he’s rustled up “a number of local restaurants and caterers to accept the challenge of putting together a school lunch that has a local ingredient in it, as a learning tool for the kiddos.” Fairlight Bakery, Mint Tea and JoFoody catering are among the participants.
The same kids who don’t care for classrooms are quick to absorb real-world lessons about local food production and nutrition.
“The kids caught us feeding them potato chips,” said program coordinator Erik Smith, a recent WSUV master’s degree graduate who was leading the kids between work in the garden and lunch on the table. “It was like, touche, you got us.”
A food theme doesn’t mean it’s all about seeds and soil and swearing off potato chips, Finley said. For example, one recent lesson involved engineering paper airplanes that could carry airlifts of food to impoverished communities, and then flying those airplanes across a map of the world to see where they landed — that is, what food got to whom. In addition to working out aeronautical problems, she said, that exercise also had the kids considering the pros and cons of charity from afar versus sustainable food systems at home.
Some of AHAS’ older students have been with the program since before kindergarten, Finley said, so she’s now deep in research to see how the program has affected them.
Just 25 children enrolled in the first AHAS program, in the summer of 2002; the program peaked last year at 600 registrations, Finley said. Now it’s down to 100, with just as many on a waiting list. The huge drop is due to budget tightening, as well as Washington State University’s own risk-management concerns, she said. Finley estimated that she’s running the whole program for less than $10,000.
Nonetheless, AHAS has become essential to WSUV’s education program, she said, with all preservice teaching students required to put in AHAS time.
“The goal being that it prepares teachers for diverse schools and a diversity of students,” she said. That’s also one way the program costs stay low: most of her teachers are WSUV students “who are paying for the privilege,” Finley said.
AHAS is running for four days a week this summer, down from five days a week previously. During the school year, it’s two Saturdays per month on the WSUV campus. It also offers year-round tutoring in local homeless shelters, environmental education at the Columbia Springs Environmental Education Center, support for foster children who are “aging out” of the system, and more. Business and nonprofit partners and volunteers are crucial, said Finley, who’s looking to keep the ratio of adults to children as low as possible.
Just as these kids know the difference between healthy food and potato chips, they also know the difference between a respectful adult and one who’s out for control at all costs. Some of the kids once came to Finley to tattle on their student teacher: “We’ve got a screamer.”
“It didn’t work for them,” Finley said, “and they knew it wasn’t going to work for me.”
Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; email@example.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.