School on Wheels Skid Row learning center

School on Wheels’ Skid Row in-person learning center serves kindergarteners through fourth graders and focuses on teaching reading and phonics. Middle and high school students receive other instruction and services. (Photo/Ian Chan)

Social Impact

School on Wheels provides hope to children living in underserved communities

The program — a grantee of USC’s Good Neighbors Campaign — guides children experiencing homelessness to academic success.

November 28, 2023 By Saúl García

Every evening in Los Angeles County, thousands of children go to bed at night in shelters, motels, vehicles or on the streets. The ones who are of school age are more likely to fall behind, repeat a grade or even drop out.

School on Wheels, a grantee of the USC Good Neighbors Campaign, understands the challenges these unhoused children face in constantly moving from location to location and school to school, and has been a vital resource in bridging the gaps and helping them continue to learn since 1993.

“We are focused on kids experiencing homelessness,” said Catherine Meek, executive advisor for School on Wheels. “Our goal is to close the gaps, and to give them the best possible education we can.”

About the Good Neighbors Campaign

  • Since 1992, the Good Neighbors Campaign has awarded nearly $30 million to community organizations surrounding the University Park and Health Sciences campuses. This year, the campaign — largely funded by donations from USC faculty and staff — has awarded over $1 million to 57 community organizations.
  • You can make a donation online during today’s “Giving Tuesday” or any other time.

Through its hybrid programs, School on Wheels assists over 1,700 students annually from kindergarten to the 12th grade. Their Skid Row in-person learning center serves kindergarteners through fourth graders and focuses on teaching reading and phonics. Middle school students receive virtual instruction in math, and high school students learn to develop life skills and get career guidance.

“There are hundreds of kids that live in Skid Row,” Meek said. “These are just kids going to school and trying to learn.”

Among the more important things the organization provides are laptops and internet hot spots. For a population always on the move, those are critical needs.

“They live in this inconsistent, chaotic world, and so we have to be right there with them,” said Ian Chan, School on Wheels’ associate director for programs

School on Wheels was gradually rolling out hot spots to all participants when the pandemic hit. The Good Neighbors grant allowed the nonprofit to change its timeline and ramp up distribution.

“It helped us a lot with sourcing of technology, and the ability to get devices out into the communities,” Chan said.

In 2022, the organization distributed more than 750 devices.

Spillover effect for School on Wheels

The grant also had a spillover effect. According to Meek and Chan, it gave School on Wheels instant credibility and enabled the organization to recruit more than a dozen USC students as in-person tutors for the Skid Row Learning Center, which has been difficult to do since the pandemic.

For Gabrielle “Ellie” Kurtz, a first-year transfer student at the USC Marshall School of Business, volunteering has been an eye-opening experience. It has made her keenly aware of the unhoused problem happening near campus and changed her perspective.

“There is hope in Skid Row,” Kurtz said. “These children are wonderful. They are curious. They are bright.”

The guidance from tutors and volunteers is having an impact: Two-thirds of School on Wheels’ participants improved one grade level in their assessment scores. And while Meek is thankful for their support, she sees the true heroes as the participants themselves.

“I’m always amazed at their bravery, resilience and courage to just go to school,” Meek said.