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Softening the Hard Knocks


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At the west end of Cedar Street, tucked between the trolley tracks and a Jack in the Box, lies a school for those who know life’s hard knocks only too well—and have had to learn them way too soon. The new building on a little plot of land is home to Monarch High, a nontraditional school in nearly every sense of the word. Here, it is not uncommon for students to show up before the teacher. Some don’t want to leave when classes end.

When talk at Monarch turns to back-to-basics, it’s probably not about the 3 Rs. Basics at this school more likely mean hot food, a hot shower and clean clothes. Monarch High School is for homeless kids, and the stories they tell can break hearts.

These kids live in shelters or rundown rooms, or they camp on the streets. There is little quiet in their lives; their everyday existence is a cacophony of discontent. The parents or adults in their lives may be drug addicts, chronic alcoholics, prostitutes, mentally ill or doing time in prison. Some of the kids have had to sell their bodies just to get food. They could go to regular schools, but “regular” kids make fun of them because they smell or wear the same shabby clothes day after day. Many of them see crime and abuse on a regular basis. Some experience both.

But Monarch High is not about sad stories. This school is about giving forgotten kids a way out. It is about a cadre of teachers, business leaders and volunteers who fell in love with what they call a pure cause, a righteous endeavor they would not allow to fail. Their assignment: Band together to create a normal environment for children who have never experienced such a thing.

Monarch High is about offering love, care and unbounded hope to kids who have never had a chance, and it is an amazing success story.

Attendance at Monarch is voluntary, and enrollment is booming. By the end of summer, 110 students were signed up; about 40 arrived in August alone. That month traditionally is the slowest for Monarch. Head teacher Susan Armenta believes the school’s goal to enroll 150 will be reached by the end of this year—not 2005, as originally predicted.

“The kids themselves are spreading the word about the school,” says Armenta.“They have an incredible network, and new kids just keep showing up.”

San Diego’s task force on the homeless estimates there are 2,000 homeless kids in the city, a figure that Armenta suspects is “way too low.”

The prospect of having a school operating at capacity three years ahead of schedule does not intimidate Armenta. Increased enrollment can be handled by offering two shifts of classes a day. If that isn’t enough, she figures additional options will present themselves. After all, good things just keep happening for Monarch High School.

“You can call it divinely authored or serendipitous or just plain spooky,” Armenta says, “but just when we need something, it tends to appear.”

The epitome of this good fortune is the school’s new state-of-the-art building, which opened in February. Armenta calls its construction “nothing short of a miracle,” because until recently it appeared that the school itself would be homeless.

Monarch High School was born in 1988 as The Place. Operated as part of the juvenile court system by the County Office of Education, it was heralded as the first school in California for homeless youth. Its founder, teacher Sandra McBrayer, later was named National Teacher of the Year. One of the school’s biggest benefactors was the San Diego Rotary Club, which provided mentors and volunteers.

Renamed Monarch in 1998, the school bounced around in the ghetto areas of downtown. It was operating in a small, dingy storefront at Market and 13th streets when downtown ballpark-area redevelopment plans were announced, and a long-term lease suddenly went month-to-month.

The day Armenta learned of the lease predicament is the day she met Michelle Candland, newly arrived in San Diego as managing director of the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis. Through the Rotary, Candland had come to Monarch to sign up as a mentor.

“Susan told me instead that she needed a new school, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’” recalls Candland.

“I have never known anyone like Michelle,” Armenta says with no small degree of admiration. “She’s a spitfire. For her, the train is on the track, and you’d better buy your ticket or get off, because it’s going to go now.”

That train, Armenta adds, soon became rocket-fueled. The Monarch High School Project was formed as a nonprofit corporation, and Armenta was named its president. Rotary members and other businesses began a major fund-raising drive.
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