Fernando Hernandez, the principal at Perkins K-8, makes sure his middle school teachers don’t put too much weight on homework.

Hernandez caps the percentage of grades drawn from homework at 15 percent, which he says is lower than many middle schools. Though many schools and parents across the country have argued in recent years that schools should de-emphasize homework, Hernandez came to that conclusion for a different reason than most.

Many students at Perkins weren’t completing their homework because they had no good place to do it, he said.

In three years, the percentage of homeless students at the Barrio Logan school has shot up from 4 percent of the school’s total enrollment to a peak of 33 percent at one point last academic year, one of the highest homelessness rates of all elementary schools in San Diego Unified.

The population of homeless students is currently around 28 percent. The school has about 480 students.

Gentrification in Barrio Logan means rising rents and more families doubling up – living multiple families to a space. In the eyes of the Department of Education, those children are considered homeless.

The neighborhood the school serves stretches into East Village, the epicenter of the city’s homelessness crisis. The 2017 annual homeless count showed a 27 percent spike in downtown San Diego.

Students whose families are in shelters like St. Vincent de Paul, or those who stay in cars or tents in the area near homeless services downtown, might attend Perkins or the nearby Monarch School, which is operated by the San Diego County Office of Education and caters to homeless students.

Hernandez took me on a tour of the school, walked me through some of the unique challenges educators face when teaching homeless students and discussed strategies teachers there use to try to overcome those challenges.

“We’re trying our best to catch these kids,” Hernandez said. “We’re trying to make sure these kids, when they leave our school, are as successful as they can possibly be. It means we’ve had to learn how to teach with poverty in mind.”

The shift in the school’s population was marked by a noticeable change in student behavior, said Hernandez.

“With the change of demographics, it required a change in the way we teach,” he said. “And by that I mean, we were dealing with social, emotional, behavioral and mental health issues to a magnitude that we’ve never seen before – to the point where we were going home exhausted, not knowing what to do. Every school deals with students that misbehave at times, but we were really dealing with some extreme behaviors.”

Students were acting out, struggling academically and not showing up to school. Hernandez and his teachers had to rethink how to approach education to ensure that less stable students could also succeed.

“When students come from a background of poverty – poverty doesn’t just mean less money,” Hernandez said. “Poverty means less nutritious meals. It means less time spent sleeping. It means more instability in the home, mobility – moving from place to place. It means parents are maybe working two or three or four part-time jobs instead of one full-time job, so it means students who are alone more of the time. They are interacting with other people less. That’s what we’ve discovered with poverty. They really might not have anybody to teach them these other social skills or emotions.”

There are some emotions that all people are born with, like anger, joy and sadness. But other emotions are taught. Often, children learn emotions from their families, but students in poverty may not if they aren’t spending a lot of quality time with adults in stable environments.

It may mean that when you give a student something, they don’t say, ‘Thank you,’ Hernandez said. That doesn’t mean a child is innately ungrateful. They just haven’t been taught gratitude.

So at Perkins, educators teach emotions. This month, they’re focusing on empathy and compassion. Next week, said Hernandez, they’ll teach forgiveness.

There’s one emotion on the list his staff can’t agree on how to teach: sympathy.

“We are anti-pobrecito,” Hernandez said, using the Spanish word meaning “poor thing.” “We don’t want any sympathy for these kids. These kids can learn just like anyone else. Sympathy – depending on how it’s presented – can be a self-defeating emotion.”

Students also learn what’s called a “growth mindset” – the belief that they can learn how to do anything.

Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“What we are teaching is the mindset,” Hernandez said. “Students in poverty already come to school with a sense of hopelessness.”

Paty Camacho, a third grade teacher at Perkins, uses chess to teach her students the mindset. She didn’t know how to play, and took them on the journey as her son taught her the game. She let them watch her work through her challenges as they also struggled to learn the game.

“I wanted to push myself,” Camacho said. “I could teach my kids by example. Chess is also supposed to be good for critical thinking because you have to think ahead, and anticipate what the other person might do.”

The mindset is especially important as the school tries to overcome academic challenges.

If you look at test scores, Perkins is an under-performing school.

In English Language Arts, roughly 63 percent of third and eighth graders at Perkins performed below standard in 2016 state  tests. That’s almost double the statewide average of 32 percent of students in third grade and 25 percent of students in eighth grade who didn’t meet state standards.

In math, 63 percent of third graders and 60 percent of eighth graders at Perkins performed below standard in 2016. Statewide, 29 percent of third graders and 39 percent of eighth graders test below standard.

One of the big setbacks homeless students often face is being shuffled around to several schools, which severely impedes learning. Some second-graders at Perkins have already attended six or seven different schools by the time they start there, Hernandez said.

“Mobility ruins a student’s chances,” Hernandez said. “That sounds like a big fat excuse, and I don’t mean it that way, but mobility has a reverse effect on learning.”

That’s why despite low attendance, behavioral issues or even when students’ families move out of the neighborhood, Hernandez tries to keep them at Perkins.

Standardized test scores are important, he said, but they’re a snapshot in time. Hernandez tracks each of his roughly 480 students’ individual growth.

He has every grades’ reading and math scores hung on the wall. Every week, he looks at student-by-student progress that he reports to the area superintendent.

Roughly five or six years ago, the school decided to make every student’s reading scores public. Students’ info and progress is publicly posted in each classroom to keep students and parents aware of where they are, and whether they’re improving.

“We work on that culture – that we grow at different rates,” Hernandez said.

To teach and improve reading, his teachers use something called a balanced literacy program. It requires hundreds of books in each classroom so that every student can have a somewhat individualized program. If a student comes in reading at Level 6, his or her teacher will have that student work with Level 8 books.

Hernandez has a drawer set outside his office, filled with photocopies of books from all different reading levels. When parents come in for meetings, he always gives them a copy of a book at their kid’s level.

“The hardest thing you can do is teach reading,” he said.

Hernandez is adamant about the value of early education and having interventions in place to address the academic challenges his students face.

“Students that come in below grade level at fourth grade, fifth grade and sixth grade, it’s very hard to bring them up to level,” he said. “But students that exit first grade at or above grade level, 98 percent of them will never fall behind in the rest of their lives.”

During our conversation, Hernandez pauses to observe a kindergarten teacher, Carter Anderson. She’s set up stations for the kids, so she can begin small-group work teaching them how to read. Anderson makes clear that when she’s working with the students on their letters, the rest of the students can’t bother them.

Somehow, after the class disperses into stations, Anderson manages to give her full attention to the students sounding out ABCs on flashcards, and the more than a dozen other students on computers, coloring and one student playing in the corner.

At one point during our observation, Anderson swings by to say hello, at which point she realizes her shirt is inside out. With a quick laugh, she returns to her class.

In middle school, students who are struggling require different kinds of interventions.

Teachers often have to teach content through reading, so in the middle school Hernandez’s strategies focus on helping students who are reading at a few grade levels below where they should.

One example of this is teaching a skill called “close reading.” It’s something most college-educated adults already do. For example, when students have to take an organic chemistry class in college, chances are the material is above everyone’s level, so they re-read chapters several times, highlight certain passages and take notes to better understand the information.

Middle school teachers can help struggling students by showing them the same strategies.

Hernandez acknowledges the challenges his school faces.

“We’re not a perfect school,” he said. “We’re struggling, but we’re doing what we can to get better.”

But Hernandez believes so fully in the quality of education his teachers and staff provide that he sent his son, who now attends San Diego High, to Perkins from kindergarten through eighth grade. His daughter is currently in seventh grade at Perkins.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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