Through Hattie’s Eyes
First Hattie Mitchell envisioned a school for homeless students–then she created it.
By Erika Hayasaki
Photos by J. Emilio Flores
The campus opened three weeks earlier with a special focus on children who are homeless, and its students come from all over the city. It will take one hour for Robins to pick up the first 14 children and drop them off at Crete. Then, he’ll set out to pick up another load. He rolls down the front windows part way, driving toward Inglewood, past a row of motels, past the bluish glow of the Crenshaw Imperial Plaza. “I try to make sure I get all the kids to school,” Robins says. “That’s most important. If they can get to school, they can get their education.”
One of the toughest assignments facing students who are homeless and transitory is how to get to school each day. Some live in shelters or transitional housing, and about 80 percent of Los Angeles County’s estimated 63,000 homeless children are part of an “invisible homeless” population, which means they bounce between the homes of relatives and friends until they are told to move on. Couch-hopping with familiar people might seem more stable than a shelter, but it is stressful for children who live in crowded quarters with constant uncertainty, sleeping on floors, never quite sure where they’ll end up next. Children who are homeless often attend multiple schools. With each move, parents worry: Will their kids end up trekking to school across town? Will getting to school require walking through gang territories? Will riding public transportation in the dark be safe? How will they afford the daily fares?
“We knew if we were truly going to serve this population, we had to provide transportation,” says Hattie Mitchell, the founder and CEO of Crete Academy, and a 2008 graduate of California State University, Los Angeles. Mitchell received her degree from the Urban Learning Program at Cal State LA’s Charter College of Education.
This meant spending $60,000 on vans and drivers and mapping out complicated shuttle routes that are constantly in flux. The school currently enrolls 127 students in transitional kindergarten to sixth grade. Nearly half rely on the two school shuttles, and Crete is still in need of another van and driver to meet the demand, Mitchell says.
Just Before Dawn
Robins turns right on 120th Street, near the Hawthorne Municipal Airport, for his first pick up at an apartment complex. “Two sons. Mom has a lot on her plate,” he says. “I’ll give her a call. Let her know I’m outside.” On the first day of school, Robins gave each family his cellphone number in case their child is sick or wakes up late. He gives a heads up when he is close by, so they aren’t waiting too long in the gray of morning.
“Walking out right now!” the mom texts back.
“I saw how much experience the staff members had, how much they care about the children.”
Robins hops out of the van to greet them. He is a bearded father of four, dressed in a black polo and basketball shorts. He doesn’t ask about each family’s living situation but keeps a watchful eye. A small boy wearing a big backpack climbs into the last row before his brother. “Has he had his medicine?” Robins asks his mom. She nods.
“You guys buckled?” Robins asks.
He knows how important safe transportation is for Crete students. When Robins, who is now 29, was growing up in Compton, he woke up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus to middle school. On his first day of school, gang members who lived along his route asked, “Where you from?” Robins replied, “I’m not from anywhere. I’m in the magnet program.” Nevertheless, he spent his middle school years getting chased by gang members on his way to and from school, often fighting them off.
Robins pulls over and gets out of the van again to walk a few students waiting in an alley of their apartment complex to the shuttle. Some parents wait outside with their kids. Others don’t. The last pick up on this route are two of Robins’ own children, ages 4 and 7. While some on the campus are homeless, others come from mixed-income families. Robins met Mitchell and her staff before Crete Academy opened. He immediately knew it would be the best experience for his kids. “I saw how much experience [the staff members] had, how much they care about the children.”
A Dream Begins
Hattie Mitchell’s inspiration to start a school serving homeless and underprivileged youth came to her when she was a student at Cal State LA, where she majored in urban learning. She was also a member of what was known then as the CSULA Gospel Choir, which participated in a community service project on downtown’s Skid Row. “I didn’t know what Skid Row was,” Mitchell remembers. “I hopped in the car and then my life was forever changed.”
Fifteen minutes from her dorm, she entered a world of blue. That’s the color that comes to her memory. Blue tarps on every block. It felt blue too, with sad and strung out people pushing carts, living in homes made of cardboard, walking through the streets without care for cars or stop signs. “There was trash everywhere, people shooting up in front of everyone, people clearly on drugs, prostitutes on every corner, people half dressed,” she recalls. “I went from sort of being in awe, kind of shocked, to feeling sad, to getting angry.” Mitchell thought: How could so many people live like this in America?
“I went from sort of being in awe, kind of shocked, to feeling sad, to getting angry.” Mitchell thought: How could so many people live like this in America?
Mitchell came from a working class family that at times struggled financially, as water or lights were cut off, or food ran short. Though she did not know what it felt like to be homeless, she knew what it felt like to be underestimated and confused about how to navigate a system that seemed stacked against her. She grew up in Turlock in the Central Valley. Her mother is Filipino and Polish and her father is African American and French. They were one of five black families in the area. She remembers walking into her high school counselor’s office one day during her junior year. The woman didn’t turn around to face her, as she typed on her computer.
Mitchell blurted out: “I want to go to college.”
The counselor finally turned around. “You’re not college material,” she said, telling Mitchell to consider a trade school instead.
Feeling defeated, Mitchell went home and told her mother. That is when “mama bear came out,” Mitchell remembers. Her mother had endured a childhood with a heroin-addicted mom and the memory of her murder. She also experienced childhood neglect and sexual abuse. Even though Mitchell’s mom did not attend college herself, she learned to be resilient and resourceful. “She really channeled that frustration and energy to help me get into college,” Mitchell says.
After getting accepted into Cal State LA, an English professor pulled Mitchell aside one day. “She sat me down and had one of my first papers in front of her.” In the gentlest way, the professor asked, “What high school did you go to?”
“I decided I wanted to create opportunities for kids like her—for kids who don’t have the resources, maybe their parents don’t know how to navigate the education system in elementary school, let alone college.”
Mitchell could tell it was a sincere question. “She was really concerned because my writing was so bad. It was terrible. And I never knew until that day.” The professor helped Mitchell get connected with the University Writing Center and other resources that help students at remedial learning levels. Mitchell’s writing improved, as she went on to claim her own win: earning her teaching credential and Bachelor of Arts in Urban Learning.
This accomplishment was under the guidance and mentorship of Mary Falvey, now an emerita professor, and Professor Paula Arvedson. “They invested in me,” she says, “and that was huge.”
That investment is reaping dividends. Mitchell later earned a Master of Public Policy from Pepperdine University and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Southern California.
“Outstanding alumni, like Hattie Mitchell, are changing the lives of vulnerable students in Los Angeles and throughout the region,” says Cheryl L. Ney, dean of the Charter College of Education at Cal State LA. “She displays the leadership, passion and commitment that exemplify graduates of the Charter College of Education.”
The Urban Learning Program at Cal State LA’s Charter College of Education is an integrated undergraduate major in which students earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential concurrently. They graduate and are ready to teach in urban schools.
A Dream Realized
Mitchell, now 31, is distinguished-looking in a pleated olive and eggplant-colored skirt, a cardigan and champagne-toned heels. And she can match her students’ dance moves to the clean version of Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble,” which plays on speakers in the school auditorium. Mitchell walks through Crete’s campus holding a walkie-talkie. Her husband, Brett Mitchell, who previously taught at a private school, is a co-founder and chief operating officer of the school. The couple also enrolled their 5-year-old son at Crete.
“We all do that,” Henry says of Crete teachers. “It’s not just me. We all buy clothes and supplies for our kids.”
By week three, Mitchell had learned each of Crete’s 127 students’ names: Marley, Milo, Raymon, Ryan, Royal, Ian, Kayden, Jaiden, Pharrell… This makes it easier for her to call out a boy on the playground when he’s not treating another child kindly, or to pull aside a girl who doesn’t seem to feel well, letting her tag along to a faculty meeting instead of participating in recess.
Mitchell’s model for Crete is based on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which begins with food, warmth, health, safety and then love. Children at the school receive medical and dental exams, regular access to counselors and caseworkers, all provided by Crete.
Recently, three brothers who are homeless enrolled at Crete. Even though they were of school age, two had never been in a school before. They showed up without socks, and teacher Laurel Henry noticed one of the boys, who was in her kindergarten class, was walking crooked. She checked his feet and toes and noticed his shoes were two sizes too small. She and another faculty member went to Target and bought the boys new shoes, underwear, socks and school uniform pants and shirts. “We all do that,” Henry says of Crete teachers. “It’s not just me. We all buy clothes and supplies for our kids.”
Before the first shuttle load of kids arrives at Crete in the morning, the staff prepares for their arrival, unloading boxes of apples, chicken strips, waffles and juice boxes. It is part of a simple philosophy, also inspired by Maslow’s hierarchy. Before reaching self-actualization—the achievement of one’s full intellectual and creative potential—a child must eat breakfast.
The sky is orange when Robins pulls over to a single level peach-colored home on the border of Compton, Watts and Lynwood. It is 6:14 a.m., and Ree Nevels, a petite woman in pink pants, black ballet flats and close-cropped purple hair, is standing on the front stoop with her daughter and son. She hugs them both and ushers them into the van.
Nevels and her kids hid from the landlord, who would not allow more residents. After two weeks, she and her kids had to leave.
“It’s my birthday today!” announces Nevels’ oldest, Mariah, a third grader at Crete. “I can’t believe I’m turning eight.” Mariah climbs in with her rainbow Peppa Pig backpack and sparkly high tops that light up.
Nevels left Texas to escape an abusive relationship. A victim’s advocate helped Nevels buy plane tickets to California. She left most of her belongings behind. “I came out here with two car seats, two strollers, a little briefcase that I got from Goodwill . . . and just one little suitcase with all my kids’ clothes and three pairs of clothes for me. That’s it.”
Her own parents had been evicted from a house they were renting and moved into a mobile home with Nevels’ grandparents, along with five of Nevels’ nine siblings. “They didn’t have room for me and my kids.” Her aunt offered to let them stay with her for a while, even though they didn’t have extra space either. Nevels and her kids hid from the landlord, who would not allow more residents. After two weeks, she and her kids had to leave. “That’s when we became legit homeless.”
“Bye you guys, have a good day,” Nevels waves. “I’ll see you after work.” She is thankful for Crete, where her kids are excited to go to school each day. She also knows her stop is one of the furthest away for Robins to drive to, but the Crete directors made sure it was not left off the route.
Mitchell told her staff: “We have to get them here. We have to figure it out.” With that, Robins started making his pick-ups earlier. “It doesn’t make business sense to go pick up two kids way out there,” Mitchell says. “But it makes sense if you want to serve that family.”
An Early Victory
“Scoot all the way to the end,” Robins tells Mariah and her brother. “Put your seat belts on.” Mariah chatters on to Robins about the long Labor Day weekend, how they went to a bounce party and ate candy. Just after 7 a.m., the shuttle pulls in front of Crete, and Mariah says: “I’m delivered!”
The kids tumble out, as Mitchell greets each at the van’s door. They are led past the school plants: eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, peas, marigolds, orange trees. After breakfast and a playground game of “Simon Says,” they file into the auditorium where Mitchell is waiting with a microphone.
“This is our very first assembly as an entire school,” she says. “Give yourselves a hand.” The students give each other high-fives. She waits for them to calm. “Now, listen up!” Mitchell skims the crowd. “Samuel? Jayvon?” They quiet. “Does anyone know what the ‘C’ in Crete stands for?” she asks. “Birthday girl?”
“That’s right!” Mitchell says. She does a Vanna White gesture toward a cart of goodies. “What we have before you are some prizes for people who show up to school every day.”
The students clap as she announces prizes like a class popcorn party, a field trip, a set of headphones. Then comes the ultimate prize for perfect attendance for the entire school year: a trip to Disneyland. The children jump out of their seats with wide eyes, squealing and cheering.
Before Mitchell dismisses them to their classes, she reminds the students that persistence and drive will help them go far—no matter how hard their lives are. The first step is being present. “If you ride the shuttle, make sure you are outside ready on time every day,” Mitchell says. “Best of luck to all of you. I hope you are all here every day. I hope you win.”
Erika Hayasaki is a Los Angeles-based journalist
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