Homeless students find educational haven at South L.A. charter school

USC Rossier alumna creates a community at the Crete Academy in South Los Angeles

April 26, 2018 Matthew Kredell

Behind the gates of Crete Academy, children play on a slide and swing set throughout the day. Each class takes its turn getting a half-hour of physical activity in the small playground, including a pair of sisters, one in the third grade, the other in transitional kindergarten.

When they started school in September, they kept quietly to the side at recess. Now they’re in the middle of the action, running around happily and shouting with their classmates. But like nearly 17 percent of the students at Crete, the girls are homeless.

USC alumna Hattie Mitchell opened the South Los Angeles charter school in September 2017, mere months after completing her Doctor of Education degree in educational leadership at the USC Rossier School of Education. Her goal was to meet the needs of children from families who have experienced homelessness or extreme poverty.

The school now has 132 students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Many are currently homeless. Many more were recently homeless.

And 97 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch. When the girls’ mother, Joel, first brought them to Crete, the family had nowhere to live. While typical school administrators might be unprepared to handle Joel’s situation, Mitchell’s team swung into action. The top priority was finding the family a place to stay for the night. The only space available was on Skid Row, so the after-school program director volunteered to take them in until they found transitional housing in Koreatown.

“I may be homeless, but I love my kids,” Joel said. “If Crete never opened its doors to me and my kids, I would never be in the situation I am now. Crete took me from being a homeless mom to a shelter mom in a position to get permanent housing.”

According to Mitchell: “Our model addresses the basic needs — food, shelter, belonging. When a child comes to us, she might be hungry or need a place to stay, the parents might not be around or there might be a single mom. The social workers in our wellness program work directly with the families to stabilize them.

“This could mean getting them into housing, getting the parents a better education or helping with their career paths.”

A sense of belonging at Crete Academy

It’s this whole-of-family approach that differentiates Crete from other elementary schools. The school’s wellness program team helps families obtain government aid and assists parents in exploring potential education and work opportunities. They not only got Joel transitional housing, but also helped her to enroll in classes to get her GED.

Emotional support is a priority as well. Behavioral issues are common in children coming from families with unstable living situations. So each student is assigned a staff member who spends time getting to know the child for 10 days.

“The goal at the end of the 10 days is for every kid to feel like they have a place and they belong here,” Mitchell said.

And belonging there means they have to be able to get there, so Crete sends vans to pick up students who are scattered throughout the city.

Nearly half rely on the service. “We knew if we were truly going to serve this population,” said Mitchell, “we had to provide transportation.”

Built for successful students

Once at Crete, students walk into classrooms purposefully designed to help them learn.

Aromatherapy diffusers spray a lavender mist to help calm students who struggle to sit still; the children practice mindfulness and deep breathing and take multivitamins with fish oil to promote brain activity and focus.

Hattie Mitchell interacts with Crete students
Hattie Mitchell, founder and CEO of the Crete Academy, with first-grader Khloe, who got to be ”principal for a day.” (Photo/Margaret Molloy)

It was also essential to Mitchell that Crete offer a college preparatory program that supports future degree attainment as a key tool for breaking the cycle of poverty.

“I wanted to build a school that provides extra support to the most at-risk students while also giving them a challenging and quality education,” Mitchell said.

Above all, Crete works to cultivate a sense of family. Many of the staff members have enrolled their children at the school, including Mitchell, whose son Brett is in first grade.

More than half of the students stay for the free after-school programs, where they play sports and participate in music, dance, cooking and gardening and get tutoring help. Parents and caregivers are also welcome at the school for free yoga classes, workshops in résumé writing and interview preparation, and classes in parenting and financial literacy.

“When they show up at district schools with all those needs, they may meet one counselor who may be able to help if not too busy,” Mitchell said. “Everybody here has a heart for these kids. This isn’t just a job for me or anyone we hire. We make sure students and families know that they belong, that they have a purpose, and that — regardless of their circumstances — they can create the future they want. We’ll provide the resources for them to do that.”

Making her vision a reality

Mitchell came to USC Rossier to learn how to become a great leader and inspire people to share her vision.

That vision was forged earlier in her life by three experiences. Growing up, Mitchell and her family didn’t always have enough money to cover basic necessities, so she understands the effect poverty can have on success in school.

I know what some of these kids are going through. I have taken cold showers, opened up rotten milk cartons and had my power shut off.

Hattie Mitchell

“I know what some of these kids are going through,” she said. “I have taken cold showers, opened up rotten milk cartons and had my power shut off.

“There were times when I could see the anguish in my father’s face — part disappointment and part sadness. However, he instilled in me an incredible work ethic, and from a young age, I took hold of the belief that I would do and be whatever I wanted if I worked hard.”

As a high school junior in a rural part of California’s Central Valley, Mitchell sat down with a counselor and expressed her desire to go to college. The reply? “You’re not college material.”

That could have been the end of Mitchell’s hopes, but her mother was assertive in figuring out what her daughter needed to do to get on the college track. By taking extra classes during her senior year, Mitchell earned admission to California State University, Los Angeles.

As a freshman, she volunteered on Skid Row and was shocked to see a 6-month-old baby crawling on the street. That was the moment she vowed to start a school that supported homeless children.

She credits Adjunct Professor Mark Johnson, superintendent of the Fountain Valley Unified School District, with helping her make that vision a reality.

“When Hattie first shared her vision with me, I remember thinking how incredible it was to meet someone who was so committed to serving students with such extreme challenges,” Johnson said. “And while there are a number of educators who have a dream or vision for serving students who need us the most, there was a quiet confidence in Hattie that made me believe she was actually capable of accomplishing such a thing.”

Johnson encouraged Mitchell to get started on forming the school right away, rather than waiting until after she completed her degree. She ended up working on the 228-page charter petition simultaneously with her dissertation.

“Were it not for the discipline and structured writing a dissertation requires, I wouldn’t have been able to produce my charter petition,” Mitchell said. “I believe Rossier gave me the tools, resources and wherewithal to produce a petition that was approved unanimously by the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

The academy’s core values

CRETE is an acronym for the school’s core values — character, responsibility, equality, teachability, excellence.

With the resources the school provides, families and children are creating their own future regardless of their background.

Joel, for example, is working toward becoming a phlebotomy technician.

“She didn’t have many options before, but now she really has an opportunity to make something of her life and show her kids that, even if you fall on hard times, you can pick up and continue to move forward,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell shares that message with all of Crete’s students and their families.

“We want to end the cycle of poverty with the 132 kids we have,” she said. “I believe the work we do is not only for today but for 20 years from now when the kids we graduated can make a difference in their communities in positive ways.”