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'She can still learn': School for homeless children delivers class work, food to students during pandemic

Community Transitional School, a Portland nonprofit that serves homeless children, provides more than just education to its students.

Maggie Vespa

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On a rainy Monday morning, the hallways of a gray, one-story school in Northeast Portland are empty and quiet, just as they will be throughout the day. Months into a global pandemic, with COVID cases and hospitalizations surging, there's nothing unusual about that. Most Oregon schools are relying solely on remote learning.

What makes operations at the Community Transitional School unique is the fact that the bus drivers are busier than ever.

"Our kids don't have a lot of access to the internet," says principal Cheryl Bickle, who also teaches third through fifth grade. "So we started doing delivery."

The Community Transitional School is a decades-old nonprofit that serves children experiencing homelessness. Before the pandemic, bus drivers picked kids up and dropped them off wherever they lived: shelters, motels, camps, vehicles parked on Portland's streets, etc.

Credit: Maggie Vespa, KGW
Cheryl Bickle is the principal of Community Transitional School in Portland, Ore. She also teaches third through fifth grade.

By mid-November, Bickle says, they had their remote-learning routine ironed out.

"We decided that we were going to deliver breakfast and morning work," she says, referring to the brown paper sacks, stuffed with food, sitting alongside plastic bins containing class work and reading assignments. "We pick it up at lunchtime when we deliver lunch [and afternoon work] and then start the whole routine again. And that has worked really well."

Teachers grade the morning work in the afternoon and the afternoon work the next morning, she adds. Roughly three-quarters of the school’s 76 students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade turn in at least one assignment every day.

Credit: Maggie Vespa, KGW
Brown paper sacks are stuffed with food, ready to be delivered to students at Community Transitional School in Portland, Ore.

Still, staff worry. In normal times, housing insecurity breeds chaos and anxiety for kids. The school has always provided a stable haven, with administrators even allowing students to remain on board after their families find housing because it’s familiar.

Now, that haven, like schools across the state, is closed.

"One of the purposes of our school is to make the children believe in themselves and their ability to succeed," Bickle says. "It's really hard to do that when you don't see the kids."