Early mornings in the summer, a school bus trundles through the neighborhoods of Battle Ground and Vancouver picking up children from homeless shelters and neighborhood schools. On board, the little ones, though groggy, help themselves to nutrition bars. For some, it’s the first meal of their day.

The cargo is ferried through the city and up a winding drive to the Washington State University campus, where college students wait to shepherd the children into a classroom. They have their welcome, more food, and a choice of courses for the day. Some may take a nature walk. Others head out for a field trip to a farm where they can garden. A group might visit a museum. Or they can stay on site and create art, or shoot pictures or video, or learn music.

In Clark County, 10 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level, and nearly half of that group is under 25. According to a recent American Community Survey, more than 13,000 of the county’s residents in poverty are between 6 and 18 years old. Economics, cultural barriers, and transience are all impediments to a child’s success in school, and ultimately in life.

For the past 13 years, Washington State University Vancouver has sought to change that. While their classmates head off to family vacations or summer camp, a portion of the most vulnerable Vancouver-area children have been part of a special laboratory called At Home At School. With three key missions, the program seeks to help children overcome their social and economic challenges, prepare the next generation of teachers to work with disadvantaged children, and offer a testing ground for teachers and scholars to design and adjust projects for this special population.

Growing up, Anastasia Kuzmina was both poor and homeless. When she was 10, she and her mother moved across the world from Vladivostok, Russia, to Washington. They were heading to a better life, but, as Kuzmina tries to explain, the next few years were complicated.

“My mother married, then divorced, and we lived in shelters and took advantage of public resources at times,” says the WSU human development major. Several years ago she, her mother, and her younger sister moved to Vancouver. Kuzmina’s mother worked as a beautician and Kuzmina had to stay home and babysit.

But a seasonal job with the At Home At School (AHAS) program offered an alternative. Kuzmina could spend her summer days away from home, earn money, and gain experience that might help her find another job or even get into college. “I saw an opportunity and I took it,” she says. “I didn’t want to work at McDonald’s.”

She was quickly enmeshed in a complex WSU project, and she empathized with her charges. She didn’t realize it at the time, but while working with younger children in an arts-integrated academic-support program, she was also benefitting. It has led her toward her degree as well as a certificate program in child case management. She hopes to graduate next year.

The summer job was about meeting the needs of younger children who might otherwise be stuck at home alone in front of the television, or outside without supervision. “They came in dragging in the morning,” says Kuzmina. “But we gave them individual attention.” They painted, gardened, and learned music. “They loved having someone spend time with them. And at the end of the day they left happy.”

For children who may not have much they can control in their lives, at AHAS “they get a lot of control over the day,” says Susan Finley, the WSU Vancouver professor who founded the program in 2002. Starting with a simple need to provide something for children living in a shelter, the program now has many layers, from meeting the most basic needs of food and safety to providing students and scholars a place to create and test new programs for underserved children.

Sometimes, when she shares case histories with her students, Susan Finley brings up a child in a low-income family whose father had been incarcerated and whose mother struggled with an assortment of issues. “She experienced homelessness, she had no plans for college, and she was pregnant as a late teen,” says Finley. “And then I ask, what are her chances of success?”

“The response is that she has virtually no chance,” says the professor. “Then they realize it’s me.”

In teaching education and public affairs, Finley wants to break the assumptions surrounding poverty and show her WSU Vancouver students that given support, opportunity, and an understanding of their rights to an education, young people with limited prospects can find their way to better lives.

Despite her own challenges, Finley finished college with honors and found a good job as an editor. But she was drawn to the more challenging work of the Detroit Youth Foundation, where she helped open street schools in empty buildings and developed a broad understanding of “kid issues.” That led to her role as director of youth services for Washtenaw County in Michigan, where she oversaw the foster program, summer youth offerings, and juvenile detention.

From there she got a doctorate in education at the University of Michigan. Her scholarship focused on the philosophy and history of education as well as research theory, studies, and assessments. The field offered many opportunities for inquiry, but it led Finley away from the children she originally sought to serve.

Her son brought her back into focus. Inspired by Tennessee Williams, he had moved to New Orleans to become a writer. On a visit, Finley walked with him through the city as he pointed out scores of young people living on the streets. Then he turned to her and said, “What happened to you?”

“I realized I needed to get back to on-the-ground efforts to serve children,” she says. “I would much rather spend my life on these real issues and kids.”

In 2002 Finley came to WSU Vancouver, choosing the job because of the potential for building her own program at the relatively young campus. “This was a new place and I had an opportunity to create something,” she says. “Poverty is poverty. But here I had an ability to develop something totally new.”

It didn’t take long.

“I had been researching street kids all over the country, and when I came here, word got out,” she says. “One day at the end of my first year, I got a call.” Summer was approaching and a homeless shelter was grappling with what to do with the children who would no longer have school to go to every day. “I was asked to help set up a program for them,” she says. That first summer, teachers and volunteers filled the days of 25 children with activities and academic tutoring.

Talking with those children, Finley realized they felt like outsiders in their schools. They struggled to keep up with their classmates and their teachers didn’t understand or empathize with their challenges of transience and absenteeism, or being new and out of the group. One teacher, admitting her own predisposition and limited resources, talked about a child who came in without his parents or class materials. She seated him at the back of the class because she knew he wouldn’t be there long.

Out of her visits and discussions came the notion of At Home At School, an effort to help the children overcome their lower status at their schools and provide them with the confidence to seek the support to which they are legally entitled.

“The goal is to encourage the students to write their own futures,” says Finley. They can use their creativity and critical thinking skills to change their own lives.

The AHAS program quickly outgrew the shelters and moved into Vancouver school buildings vacant during summer break. Forming At Home At School as an arts-based out of school program, Finley expa
nded it beyond the homeless to include other children with sociocultural and economic barriers. Some were first-generation immigrants who didn’t speak English, others were from impoverished and single-parent families.

She also focused AHAS on teacher education, offering WSU students and scholars a chance to work with and study a diverse and complex community of children and families. Some of their efforts have resulted in papers on subjects like the role of arts education in social change, bridging homelessness as an experience with homelessness as a public issue, and issues of diversity in teacher education.

Now AHAS has many components, including organizing volunteers in shelters to tutor children during the school year, expanding the initial summer program, and developing a “play school” to acclimate children who haven’t had nursery school or kindergarten. It is the source of Back on Track, an effort to help suspended and expelled students re-enter public school. “We piloted it through AHAS and Vancouver public schools took it on,” says Finley. Erica Nicewonger ’08, a former student, now runs it for the school district. “By putting these things together, we end up modeling programs that others may need,” says Finley.

In 2012 the At Home At School summer effort burgeoned with about 600 participants. “And the community need is still growing,” says Finley. But a downturn in public support (for example Washington state’s No Child Left Inside grant program hasn’t received funding since 2009) and a need to streamline resources caused AHAS to scale back to about 50–60 children. As grant money comes in, Finley may be able to add back. The program also relies on funding from area businesses and charitable organizations like the Wolf Family Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington.

But Finley isn’t content to build something and let it be. “Now, every year, every phase of it is different,” she says. Two years ago, the central focus was on food and social justice. Many of the children explored healthy eating, community food systems, and urban gardens. They also worked with an artist and created a four-panel traveling mural exploring the concepts.

This year, they’re aligning with science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education efforts by blending music and engineering and creating synthesizers. Another group will be pursuing food, nutrition, and outdoor education.

In late spring, as we talk about her plans for the summer of 2015, Finley is waiting to hear on three grant proposals that may open new opportunities for the summer program. Beyond that, and in addition to teaching classes in education and public policy, she is helping students in their late teens find their way to higher education and stay on course. “These are kids whose families may not see a good reason for them to go to college,” she says. They finish high school, often with family encouragement. But now their needs, financial and otherwise, have escalated beyond what their families can provide.

One of her students had to break free of the burden of supporting her family. She tried sharing an apartment, but the roommate kept late hours. So she moved to her own tiny place and worked more to pay her bills, says Finley, all the while staying enrolled at WSU Vancouver. She came to Finley one day for help. Expecting to talk about class choices, once they sat down, the professor realized the young woman wasn’t just looking for guidance, “she was lonely.” She needed a friend, an advisor, and someone who could help her develop her life skills.

While the focus is on the K–12 children in the AHAS program, “I think the imprint is much bigger,” says Finley: the high school students who take the summer jobs, the college students earning their bachelor’s and master’s in education, and the parents and siblings of the AHAS participants who see a possibility for education their own futures.

Like her friend and classmate Anastasia Kuzmina, Irina Mishuk comes from an immigrant family. Moving from Ukraine more than a decade ago, her large family settled into a conservative religious community. She now has 12 sisters and brothers. At home, there’s always something to eat and people around, she says. And the focus is the family and the immigrant community. Mishuk had no notion of going beyond high school. But her summer job with At Home At School became her pathway to college. “I think it opened up a lot of doors for me to get in to higher education,” she says. When she completes her studies in human development next year, Mishuk will be the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I thought about working with youth and criminal justice,” she says. “But now I’m more interested in public policy. I want to change the system.”

That summer several years ago, Mishuk and Kuzmina watched how the creative projects and tutoring sparked something in the children. The summer break turned a liability—without instruction and support the children would have fallen further behind—into an asset.

All of the children have their own electronic portfolios where the students and teachers assemble their projects, their stories, and their accomplishments. The public school teachers who want a better understanding of an individual AHAS student can access the portfolio online. And having a body of work bolsters the child’s confidence, say the WSU students.

The children often arrived with issues that the workers would address during the morning welcome session. “If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, their most basic weren’t always being met,” says Mishuk. Some were hungry, unkempt, or had personal concerns. “The program is like a safe haven for many of the children and they definitely don’t take it for granted,” she says.

Mishuk found the one-on-one time to be the most rewarding. “The children would draw illustrations which were very personal,” she says. “I remember one little girl drew a picture of her ‘funnest’ thing to do and it was a drawing of her and me.”