According to the National Center for Homeless Education, students can fall behind four to six months academically each time they change schools due to homelessness. And a study from America’s Promise Alliance states that high school students with unstable housing are 87% more likely to drop out than their peers with housing stability.
Since 1999, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit Homeless Children’s Education Fund has been striving to change statistics like these via its varied programs and services. And last month, HCEF rolled out one of its most ambitious projects yet: Winnie’s Wagon, which the organization’s CEO, Ardana Jefferson, describes as “the first mobile classroom in Southwestern Pennsylvania dedicated to serving youth experiencing homelessness.”
HCEF is not new to meeting homeless children and families where they are. Some of the organization’s earliest efforts included providing students in shelters with school uniforms, transportation, and other necessities. Construction of the group’s first learning center inside a homeless shelter, the launch of an annual back-to-school backpack distribution, and a K–8 tutoring program inside the shelter followed. But two years ago, significant challenges compelled HCEF to take its support on the road.
“In response to the pandemic, when schools were shut down, HCEF launched the Mobile Learning Program in 2021 to better serve the students and families not living in a shelter or a transitional housing program,” Johnson says. “Whether it is couch surfing between friends and family, living in cars or motels, or sleeping on the streets, these families have an even greater demand for HCEF’s services but always feel slightly out of reach.”
The program’s educators found a way to bring services to those who needed them, but Jefferson notes that they had to overcome some hurdles. “HCEF’s mobile learning educators often used their personal vehicles to transport resources and faced the harsh elements to create the best environment for learning under the circumstances,” she says. “They knew a change was necessary. Winnie’s Wagon was born from a need for increased flexibility for the youth experiencing homelessness in the Pittsburgh region.”
HCEF did substantial fundraising with generous sponsors and donors to get the dream of a mobile classroom in gear. A November 2022 appearance on the Kelly Clarkson Show boosted it over the finish line. Pittsburgh ABC affiliate WTAE had nominated HCEF to take part in the Good Neighbor series on Clarkson’s program celebrating organizations doing good in their communities, and HCEF made the cut. On the air, Clarkson presented Jefferson with a donation from Scholastic of $5,000 in books and $10,000 in cash.
Jefferson says that HCEF used its funds to purchase a van and soon partnered with the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum’s design team to transform it into an inviting mobile classroom, outfitted with books, games, makerspace supplies, Wi-Fi, and a variety of educational technology tools—3D printer, tablets, virtual reality headsets—offering lots of opportunities for hands-on learning.
The HCEF team works with counselors from local elementary schools who refer students for the K–8 Mobile Learning Program. “Winnie’s Wagon meets those youth experiencing homelessness where they are—whether in parks, shelters, motels, or a friend’s house,” Jefferson says. She anticipates that the new mobile classroom “will provide tutoring or enrichment opportunities for 20–25 students per week to start and will grow from there.” She notes that more than half of those students and families will also receive wraparound support, including food, clothing, shelter, mental health services, and emergency funds.
Down the road, Jefferson expects the number of students needing Winnie’s Wagon to increase, and hopes to raise funds to sustain the program as well as purchase “a second unit equipped with all STEAM learning activities,” she says. HCEF currently supports more than 500 of the nearly 3,000 students in Allegheny County who have been identified as unhoused and aims to double the number of kids in its programs.
And more TV airtime may be coming HCEF’s way, too. In May, Jefferson was invited back to the Kelly Clarkson Show to lobby for HCEF as a Good Neighbor of the Year finalist. Voting by the public took place in early November, but the winner has not yet been announced.