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Homelessness: The shadow that hangs over students in this Bay Area school district

Maddie Godoy doesn’t have much time for homework. When she gets home from school, the 11-year-old babysits for her little brothers. She often makes dinner, scrambled eggs or hot dogs, whatever is in the fridge. She plays hide and seek with Iker, 2, in the family’s small apartment before getting him to bed. In the morning, she makes sure 7-year-old Steven doesn’t miss his bus.
Maddie does whatever she can so her mother can get more sleep and be able to work more hours. The sixth-grader worries they will run out of money again. The last time that happened, earlier this year, the family lived in a garage for six months. This time might be worse.
“If we get kicked out again we have nowhere to go,” says Maddie, the light in her eyes clouding with fear. “I’m worried.”
Homelessness is the shadow that hangs over Maddie and many others in Ravenswood City Elementary School District, which has one of the highest percentage of students classified as homeless in the Bay Area.
Almost 23 percent of the East Palo Alto district’s students were considered homeless at some point during the 2017-2018 school year, according to data from the California Department of Education. Compared to a homeless student rate of less than .21 percent just down the road in Palo Alto, Ravenswood is a stark illustration of the struggle working class families face in one of the most expensive region’s of the country. It is a pocket of poverty amid an enclave of affluence. Only a tiny district of 12 students in Sonoma County has a higher rate of students considered homeless in the nine-county Bay Area.
Ravenswood Middle School students listen to their teacher during a physical education class at Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 
Schools throughout California define students as homeless if they lack a fixed, adequate, night-time residence. That means students like Maddie, whose family stayed in a garage, qualify as homeless, along with those whose families stay in cars, tents, motels, trailer parks, or public spaces and those who share houses with others because they’ve lost their own shelter. While other students their age are thinking about play dates and piano recitals, these students are often worried about where they will sleep at night.
Maddie has few certainties in her life but she knows she doesn’t want to go to a homeless shelter. One of her best friends at school, Mayra, stayed in one and it made her sad. Maddie never complains about her circumstances. She knows how tough it is for her mother, who makes $14 an hour cleaning and prepping food at a Palo Alto cafe, to keep a roof over their heads. The family moved into a one-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto just a few months ago.
“Every night when we get home the first thing I do is tell my mother thank you,” says Maddie, tears welling up in her eyes, “because I know she works so hard for us.”
Sixth-grader Madelyn Godoy, 11, studies at Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 
The statistics used to be even more grim in the Ravenswood district. Two years ago, its student homeless rate was 30 percent. The number fluctuates wildly as children move in and out of stable housing. Many children double up with other families, surfing couches or living in garages. Some camp out in tents in backyards.
“You can’t imagine how hard it is for our families,” says Ravenswood Middle School principal Ryan Hughes. “A lot of them feel helpless and trapped in their situation.”
Ravenswood Middle School students wait in line for lunch in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 
By necessity, the district and its schools provide more than just teachers and classrooms in which to learn. Since many students come to school with empty stomachs, Maddie’s school — Ravenswood Middle — serves three meals a day to all students, plus snacks. It also has a food bank and washers and dryers for families who need to do laundry. And the district provides transportation to students, even when they have to move into homeless shelters in other nearby cities. Maddie takes the bus, and eats the school meals, though she’d rather cook her own.
Ana Maria Pulido, the president of the Ravenswood school board, poses for a photograph at Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 
“We aren’t just concerned with what happens in the classroom,”  says school board president Anna-Maria Pulido, who grew up in the neighborhood. “Coming to school in dirty clothes can make kids feel ashamed.”
Like many Ravenswood parents, single mother Erika Godoy, 29, is struggling to keep her family afloat in Silicon Valley. She emigrated here four years ago, fleeing violence in El Salvador, and works hard to make a new life, waking up at 3 every day to get to her job. Sometimes, she works a lot, other days it’s just a few hours.
“It’s really hard,” admits Godoy in Spanish, as her daughter translates. “I barely have a few minutes to eat and a few hours to sleep.”  In the background, Steven and Iker fight over an “Ant Man” comic book. “I worry about my kids a lot. My kids deserve better.”
She is grateful to be out of the garage. Having a kitchen, where she can make chicken soup on a cold night, feels like a luxury. But she is desperate for a second job. She isn’t making enough now to pay her bills. Already, her cellphone gets turned off on a regular basis. Her rent is $1,900, which is below average for a one-bedroom in East Palo Alto, according to RentCafe. But with her wages, she can never get ahead. “I never have enough. Every time I cash my check, it’s gone.”
Even with all its flaws, like the abandoned shopping carts and shattered glass strewn around the courtyard where the kids play, this is the best home they’ve had in a long time. Asked what she will do if they lose this apartment, Erika breaks down.
“I don’t know,” she says between sobs. “I just don’t know.”
Ravenswood Middle School English teacher Kyle Tana helps a student in her class in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 
Here in the shadow of Facebook and Stanford University, poverty is the norm. About 89 percent of Ravenswood students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch in 2017. More than half were English learners, according to state data.
“East Palo Alto used to be one of the few areas left where the working poor could live. Now they are being pushed out by gentrification,” says Pulido.
Officials say the district’s homeless statistics may be underestimated because many parents are afraid to admit the truth. Some fear deportation, others worry about Child Protective Services.
“The rise of Silicon Valley has fueled a lack of affordable housing,” says Leanne Wheeler, at the state’s Department of Education. “It’s the divide between the haves and the have nots. The working poor have fallen down hard.”
Homelessness or the instability of moving in and out of temporary solutions can hijack the course of a child’s development, experts say. Maddie works hard to stay on top of her homework and her teacher says she’s doing well, one of the better students in her class. Recently, she had to re-take some math tests because she hadn’t had time to study enough.
“The trauma of not having a home is real,” says Christina Endres, program specialist at the National Center for Homeless Education. “Homeless kids have higher rates of anxiety and depression. They also experience very high rates of special education needs.”
Ravenswood has taken its share of criticism over poor test scores and its declining enrollment.  Last year, 61 percent of the district’s students failed to meet math standards on the SBAC achievement test, according to the state. In Palo Alto, just 7 percent failed to meet those standards. The teacher’s union began calling for the superintendent’s resignation last year. This spring, despite opposition from some students and East Palo Alto’s mayor, the board renewed her contract and increased her salary to $192,814.
“It’s easy to judge us from afar. We may not have the same test scores as Palo Alto schools, but the reality is with so many students being homeless,” says Pulido, “that’s just not possible.”
Ravenswood officials say they measure success by a different yardstick.
“Yes, we have students who are super high needs but we also have kids who are working their butts off,” says prinicipal Hughes. “If we can show them that they can be whatever they want, that’s important.”  
Even in this district, some students are so stung by the stigma of their housing situations that they keep it secret.
“It can be hard to fit in and make friends,” says Endres. “It means there are no sleepovers, there are no birthday parties, the things you take for granted as part of childhood.”
Maddie told her friends what was happening when her family was staying in the garage and how it made her feel. Since many of them had been homeless themselves, they took it in stride.

“They told me it was fine,” she says. “They said nobody has it easy.”
In their world, homelessness is not a crisis. It’s part of life.
The teachers bear much of the burden for educating students who don’t know where they’re going to sleep that night. Dedication is high at Ravenswood but so is burnout.
“You can’t teach someone their multiplication tables when they are dealing with homelessness,” says Endres. “If they don’t have a sense of security, why would they care about math?”
Sixth-grader Mayra, 11, is helped by her English teacher, Kyle Tana, at Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 
Kyle Tana teaches a lot more than sixth grade English to Maddie and her classmates. If her students are hungry, she has bananas stashed in the classroom. If they are tired, she lets them put their heads down and take a nap.
“You have to meet them where they are,” says Tana.  “My door is always open. If they need a place to talk, if they need a place to cry, they are always welcome in here.”
They can also go to the school’s drop-in center, where kids experiencing trauma can play ping-pong, talk or just sit quietly.
“It can be real hard out there, in here you can just be a kid,” says Mele Lau, who runs the drop-in center. “A lot of kids wear a mask and pretend they are OK. But we see a lot of dark thoughts and suicidal ideation.”
She recalls one 11-year-old who only had time to do her homework on the bus. At night, she took care of younger siblings. In the morning, her parents left for work around 4, putting her in charge.
“She was exhausted. She started to think, if this is all there is to life, I’m tired of it,” says Lau sadly. “She wanted out.”
Maddie has the grit to keep doing her best. She’s an avid reader and her favorite subject is math. Tana says Maddie is a natural leader. But she’s often anxious.
“I try to tell myself, it’s OK, nothing bad is going to happen, concentrate on your school work,” she says. “But then I worry. What if something bad does happen? What if we have no place to live?”
Home lives may be chaotic, but once students get inside the classroom, Tana sets the bar high.
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“You may have a 6th grader reading at a kindergarten level, but you have to push them forward,” says Tana. “You’ve got to have high expectations and then the kids will push themselves to meet them.”
Maddie is determined to make her way in the world.
“I know I need to get a job and keep it,” she says.
Data reporter Kaitlyn Bartley contributed to this report.

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