Ulises Izucar fiddles with the thin art pen in his fingers, comfortable sharing his past, yet nervous to relive it. This year, he is a sophomore graphic design major at Point Loma Nazarene University. Three years ago, he says, he was homeless.
Sleeping in the park never lent itself to making Ulises feel wanted. Of his mother’s five children, he is right in the middle, but all five translated to a burden in the mind of the brown-eyed boy. There seemed to be no place for a small, shy immigrant among the sparkling skyscrapers of San Diego. His round eyes, thin arms and brown skin made him feel conspicuous. He’s unashamedly different from most people his age, and while he doesn’t care much for what others think, he’s never liked standing out.
Role models are a foreign concept to Ulises. He describes his father as an abusive alcoholic, and the words come out slower. His father was deported for domestic violence, Ulises says, and he doesn’t mention his father again. His voice grows thick as he recalls his mother’s bad decisions, and the realization she wouldn’t be a role model either. Parents, the people most kids his age relied on, only meant constant disappointment.
“I’ve never really looked up to anyone,” Ulises says. “I just knew that I didn’t want to be like my dad, and I didn’t want to be like my mom.”
Then, there was Miss Tyler, and although he may not admit it, maybe he wanted to be a little like her. Ulises first met Miss Tyler at Monarch School, his unexpected escape. A K-12 school for homeless youth, Monarch School promotes academic, emotional and social growth as well as life skills. When Ulises’ mother heard about the school, a new routine was born. Each morning as the sun rose and the homeless shelters emptied, Ulises and his family traded a cot for a park bench. On the cold metal in a public park, he says, they slept for a few hours before walking to school. Stability isn’t a word commonly associated with homelessness, so friends at school were inconsistent, because most kids moved around a lot. Ulises remained. Miss Tyler also remained, despite many of her colleagues’ frequent arrivals and departures. Both stayed, and together they watched people come and go.
Ulises carries a nonchalant tone, one of acceptance, as he talks about the constant flow of teachers coming in and out of school. In high school, he had six different science teachers.
“It’s stressful for teachers there to control all these kids that have gone through a bunch of shit and always acting up,” he says with a shrug. “Within a year, you’d have a lot of different teachers and it’s hard to adjust when you’re learning. A lot of them didn’t know how to deal with it and some of them tried to stay for a while but they couldn’t.”
Miss Tyler was different. On the first day of class, she assigned a twelve-page paper. Most students had never written more than six pages, and the task seemed daunting. Upon arrival of the due date, she took whatever students had, regardless of page count.
“She just accepted where everyone was at, but she kind tricked everyone so they would write the most amount,” Ulises says with a laugh.
Returning to Monarch School two years after graduating, Ulises is comfortable at his old stomping grounds. Through the crowd of students leaving her classroom, Miss Sherrell Tyler spots Ulises, patiently walking against the flow of kids, his curly brown hair stuffed into his signature maroon baseball hat.
“Look at you with your pink tennis shoes,” she says to him. “So comfortable with your manhood.”
The pink shoes match his pink and white striped shirt, a size too big for Ulises, who stands just a few inches over five feet tall. The two laugh — a student and a teacher — old friends.
Miss Tyler has worked at Monarch School for over six years. What sets her apart?
She’s tough, and she knows it.
“I’m empathetic but I’m not sympathetic,” she says. “I don’t believe families or students come here saying, ‘can you fix me?’ They want people to respect them, and they want the education that they deserve.”
The stereotypes surrounding homelessness are innumerable. Both Ulises and Miss Tyler are no stranger to them.
“On the news and stuff, there’s no sympathy for homeless people,” Ulises says “People think it’s some guy with a beard under a bridge, when it’s actually women and their children.”
Miss Tyler works to understand these same children, her students, in a society that tends to misunderstand them.
“We’re not here rescuing people,” she says. “We’re empowering people to be able to live their own lives.”
Until Miss Tyler, Ulises never felt taken seriously by most teachers. High expectations is a dreaded phrase to many rebellious teens, but for Ulises, it was a radical and encouraging change. His expressive arts therapist, Miss Rachelle, also held him to high standards, and then watched him grow.
When Miss Rachelle opens her door, she wears a paint-splattered apron and a huge smile, the scattered paintings and notes taped to her office walls exhibiting similarly artistic minds. A mug full of paint sits on the counter, a mug Ulises says is always there. As a founding member of Monarch School, Rachelle Archer watched the school grow from a single, cramped building to a thriving education center offering multiple services.
“If we can get these kids what they need, they can change this cycle that they’re in,” she says. “Youth is so hopeful.”
Miss Rachelle remembers the original Monarch School on the outer edge of San Diego’s Little Italy and the limitations of the small, decrepit building. Shaking her head, she says, “We used to have to step over feces and syringes just to get in the door.”
Today, Monarch School organizes family resources, dinners, clothing distribution, shower opportunities, laundry services and more. Graduating seniors are required to apply to two colleges, and several scholarship opportunities are available. Creative arts, athletics and student clubs are also part of the growing culture at Monarch School. With partners like the San Diego Padres and a supportive community, the school is growing. The work isn’t easy, but there are reminders that encourage Rachelle to remain. Ulises is one of them.
She laughs at the memory of Ulises and the notorious twelve-page paper. He came into her office, she says, ranting about Miss Tyler’s assignment. Now he is here, thanking Miss Tyler for what she taught him. Miss Rachelle describes watching Ulises grow up quiet, not expecting much of himself. She looks at him now, sitting in her office, two years into his college degree.
“Now, the world is so much bigger,” she says, smiling.
Like Miss Tyler, Miss Rachelle remained at Monarch while many others did not. It hasn’t been an easy path. She’s candid with Ulises now, as an adult, telling him faculty didn’t always leave by choice. In the school’s environment, poor choices can’t be taken lightly, so sometimes staff members were fired. It’s a harsh reality, but it is reality, she tells him.
Both Miss Tyler and Miss Rachelle acknowledge that teaching students affected by homelessness is challenging, and far different from the typical classroom. A study done by the National Center for Homeless Education, “Teaching and Classroom Strategies for Homeless and Highly Mobile Students,” examines the difficulties of these complicated settings.
According to studies by Poland and Nabors, “Some teachers perceive homeless children as more difficult, which then impacts how they interact with these students – and even whether they want to interact” (qtd. in Moore 4).
Monarch School encounters this obstacle frequently, but interaction is only the first step. The study suggests “providing a consistent and caring environment is the basis for establishing quality relationships between teachers and students” (Moore 6).
Luckily, consistency is one of Miss Tyler’s favorite words. She attributes this habit, in part, to her continued employment at Monarch School and her constant desire to remain with her students.
“What’s allowed me to stay is that I’m consistent. You may not like what I’m saying or asking you to do, but I’m consistent,” she said.
While recognizing that no single habit is generalizable to help all teachers in this situation, the study encourages inclusion of students in future studies, curricula that incorporates specific needs and development opportunities for highly mobile students.
Conni Campbell, Coordinator of Teacher Effectiveness and Preparation at the San Diego County Office of Education, worked with low socioeconomic, migrant, and homeless students for more than 20 years. In Campbell’s experience, a defining factor in both student and teacher success is simple: care.
“For students who have been through trauma especially, they need to know that you care about them as an entire person, a whole person, in addition to wanting to refine their academic abilities,” she says.
When it comes to teaching techniques, Campbell says, “The teaching strategies themselves are the same, which means that every student may need a little bit different approach.”
For Ulises, there were numerous different approaches, some helpful, some harmful. Monarch School offered him refuge when he had no home and little hope. Miss Tyler made him tougher. Miss Rachelle made him hopeful. He is a little bit of each person who built the steps that guided him to where he is.
Back in his college dorm, his walls heavy with paintings and scattered sketches, Ulises thinks often about the people who helped him get here. Stressing over homework is nothing, he says, compared to the stress of not knowing where you’ll sleep or if you’ll be safe from your own parents. Every now and then, he goes home for dinner to see his mom and younger siblings. They have a place to live now, but still live paycheck to paycheck. Each week, he goes to different scholarships meetings to ensure his financial ability to finish his college degree. He didn’t think he would be here, at a private university next to the shining Pacific Ocean. It always seemed like a false reality, something too difficult for him to obtain, and yet, here he is.
He shrugs, a simple movement that has become his signature.
“I think I got this.”