Two little girls holding hands as they try out their new backpacks for the upcoming school year. (G. Arizon/SFVS)

Starting Monday, students across the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) will begin their 2023-24 school year. As that Aug. 14 date nears, parents are looking forward to their children continuing with their in-person learning.

“I’m excited for them to go back to learning about math and reading because they were behind once COVID-19 hit,” Ode Gonzalez of Woodland Hills said. “It took a toll on them through homeschooling, and they fell behind.”

Gonzalez and her children were just one of more than 100 low-income families who were at the Vagabond Inn Aug. 4 to receive free supplies for the upcoming school year from Los Angeles Family Housing, which included backpacks, shoes, socks and clothes.

Families in need of these supplies are not uncommon in Los Angeles County. The LA Trust for Children’s Health, established through a resolution by the LAUSD Board of Education to improve the health of the district’s students and families, indicates that about 84 percent of LAUSD students live at or below the poverty line. 

A young girl browsing through free clothes being offered at the Vagabond Inn in Sylmar. (G. Arizon/SFVS)

Despite LA being one of the world’s wealthiest cities, more than one quarter of children live in poverty and many are homeless. While the numbers of homeless students enrolled this fall aren’t available, the California Department of Education reports that more than 7,500 students enrolled in LAUSD for the 2021 to 2022 school year were homeless.  

Gonzalez’s two children, Mary Jane, 10, and Jolnesa, 9, attend Erwin Elementary School in Van Nuys. She said that her daughters, as did students across the nation, received school instruction at home through distance learning once the pandemic hit.

“Last year, they finally caught up halfway [with their studies]. The goal [this year] is to catch up fully,” Gonzalez said.

Other families at the event had a similarly positive outlook on their children beginning the new school year.

“I’m happy my kids are going back to school. It gives them more stability,” said Michael Hernandez. He and his family live in Woodland Hills but are in the process of moving to Huntington Park.

Michael Hernandez (right) with his son Xavier (left) while he carries boxes of new shoes for his family. (G. Arizon/SFVS)

Hernandez described how hard it’s been on his children to find that stability in school, since his circumstances have forced his family to move from hotel to hotel. Additionally, he said one of his daughters needed help with her Individualized Education Program (IEP) — a written plan that’s developed to accommodate public school children with special needs — and he felt that her previous school was not doing a sufficient job with carrying it out.

Now that they’re moving into a new city and going to a new school, Middleton Street Elementary, the family is feeling much more optimistic.

“I’m kind of excited,” Vivian Chavez, Hernandez’s wife, said. “We’re excited that they’re going to start a new school because their experience at their old school wasn’t the best, but they’re excited about it, too. It [Middleton] is totally different from how schools look here in the valley.”

The free supplies the family was able to receive was also a bit of relief for the family. With backpacks containing school supplies and Nike shoes in tow, the family can focus on their bills, including rent.

Other families were also thankful for the free supplies for their children, including Marisa Galati.

A young child getting a free eye exam. (G. Arizon/SFVS)

“I feel a lot better now that they got some shoes and backpacks,” Galati said. “I feel a sense of ease; that anxiety is gone. Unfortunately, I’m not working right now.”

Galati grew up in Sylmar, but now resides in Woodland Hills at a family shelter. With the start of school fast approaching, Galati was highly concerned if her children would be able to have the things they need.

Her family had lived out of state for the past four years, coming back to California to rebuild their life after getting out of an “unhealthy relationship.” She’s since received help with LA Family Housing, which has connected her to Hope the Mission which helped by giving her three children — Vincent, 9, Joseph, 6, and Timothy, 2 — free haircuts to start school.

Galati said she’s looking forward to her kids going to school at Calvert Charter for Enriched Studies in Woodland Hills “so mommy can focus on getting us stable housing and get back to work in order to give them stability.”

Although most families were looking forward to the new school, some still had their own worries. Tera Welch of Canoga Park said she was excited to see her kids — Ramin Salari, 11, and Jabrir Stewart, 9 — going to new schools, but expressed some hesitation stemming from her children’s bad experiences at their previous school.

“I’m actually nervous as a mom just because of the past issues that my two kids have had, which was racism,” Welch said. “I am very, very shocked that kids so little can have so much anger at such a young age.”

Welch said at the old school, Stewart had his leg broken and Salari experienced a gun threat. Now, her sons are going to attend a charter school: Salari at Gasper De Portola Charter Middle School and Stewart at Wilbur Charter for Enriched Studies.

“I think they’ll get a little bit of a better education and [meet] kids that are more focused on keeping up their grades,” Welch said. “I’m looking forward to them meeting new friends that can motivate them and they can get a chance to see that there are kids out there that are excited about school and excited about learning.”

She also shared concerns over students’ lack of motivation and hopes that schools employ teachers and after school program coordinators who can get students both motivated and teach them to be respectful of others.

“I wish I could be the one to go around schools and talk to kids and motivate the kids [and tell them] how it feels to be talked about [negatively] and why you shouldn’t talk about that.”

These parents want easier lives for their kids.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho gave his Opening of Schools Address at The Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall Aug. 4, saying, “Los Angeles Unified will never waver from putting our students’ needs first. There’s nothing more important.”

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