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Monarch School Energizes Students to Spread Their Wings

Twice a year, the monarch butterfly migrates across North America. The spring journey takes three or four lifecycles, while the autumnal return sees a single generation of adults trek thousands of miles back to Southern California or central Mexico. As the only species of butterfly that completes a two-way migration, the monarch holds astonishing resolve. Something inside tells it to never give up, to spread its wings each morning and take hold of the new day.

You could say the same thing about the students and staff at Monarch School.

Tucked a few blocks south of Petco Park, the K-12 public school is designed exclusively to educate and support youth experiencing homelessness – the only institution of its kind in the country. Monarch School serves nearly 300 unhoused students each day, providing a safe space where they can learn, play and build pathways toward a successful future. Monarch’s staff delivers quality education and comprehensive wraparound services, such as social, emotional and academic growth, as well as life skills that help students thrive.

“We’re one big family,” says Carter Anderson, Monarch’s director of development. “If you’ve worked here or attended school here, even just for a few months, you come back and you’re part of the Monarch family.”

Just as the school brings much-needed energy to San Diego, SDG&E delivers energy to sustain its services: clean laundry, nutritious meals, hot showers, educational programming and cool air conditioning.

monarch school student
Monarch School

More Than Just a School

A partnership dating back to 1987 between the San Diego Office of Education and the non-profit Monarch School Project, the K-12 school exclusively serves families experiencing homelessness, with most incoming students referred by case workers at local social service agencies. Combining a public school setting with robust supportive services, Monarch also serves some 250 families and alumni throughout the school year. 

Monarch has a volunteer-staffed Butterfly Boutique, providing a dignified shopping experience where students can pick out hygiene items and new shoes and clothes each month. A secondary space three blocks away houses The Chrysalis: Monarch School’s Center for the Arts, a 6,000-square-foot art center complete with a 99-seat theater. Named after the metamorphosis phase between caterpillar and butterfly, The Chrysalis is a transformative space where students can freely express themselves through acting, music, dance and visual arts. 

Monarch services don’t just support students – the program helps stabilize families at Monarch through case management, fulfilling basic needs and building skills for parents working toward self-sufficiency. 

“We are proud of the way Monarch School and its supporters empower students toward hopeful, promising futures,” says Jesus “Chuy” Nuñez, director of communications and corporate engagement. “Every day, we help build a future in which housing instability does not define or limit a person’s potential. We’ve seen success, as 86% of alumni have enrolled in college or trade school or found employment on a part-time or full-time basis.”

Alumni Support

Support extends to Monarch alumni up through age 28, with assistance on finances, postsecondary education and career placement. The initiative, called Life Skills, helps students “participate in programs such as work-readiness, financial literacy, internships, college and career coaching, and mentorship,” Carter says. “In these programs, our students develop essential skills such as resilience, communication and critical thinking. In addition, we also provide graduating students and alumni with scholarships to help them pursue postsecondary education or vocational training.”

Four such alumni now work at Monarch – and Zaira is one of them. After her mother left an abusive partnership and the family lost its housing, a social worker referred Zaira and her siblings to Monarch. She would graduate just over three years later. Going on to study social work at San Diego City College and then San Diego State University, Zaira returned to Monarch for an internship with the school’s community engagement program. After graduating college in 2020, the reconnection would land her a role as an after-school associate at Monarch and eventually a position in the school’s development department. In the new role, Zaira has been able to see the school from the inside out.

“My experience at Monarch was so positive,” she says. “For the first time, I had the support I needed – academic support, emotional support, job support and financial aid. I left Monarch knowing that not only did I have a support system here, but I could also build one anywhere that I wanted. Eventually I came back because I realized how much I had needed someone to advocate on my end, and there was an opportunity for me to return and do the same.”

"Every day, we help build a future in which housing instability does not define or limit a person’s potential. We’ve seen success, as 86% of alumni have enrolled in college or trade school or found employment on a part-time or full-time basis."

Jesus “Chuy” Nuñez

Energy Inside, Energy Outside

As much as the energy from inside Monarch brings dignity and opportunity to the students and families it serves, energy from the community helps power the operation. Events like farmer’s markets and monthly dinners serve as cornerstones of community, allowing families to engage with the school’s social-service teams, including behavioral interventionists and trauma-informed therapists. Staff and sponsors sometimes use the dinners to present awards to students and new graduates, too. 

“Seeing our students walk down the line for graduation and give their speeches, it’s something that gives me so much pride,” Zaira says. “That wouldn’t be possible without all the support Monarch receives from businesses and individuals. That support translates directly to much-needed services for our students and families, though the need is always there for more.”

None of it would be possible without the energy that Zaira and her colleagues bring to school each day, a level matched only by the energy each student radiates. SDG&E delivers the power that makes it happen, from electricity to power the robotics lab and the lights and speakers at The Chrysalis’ stage to natural gas for hot water and cooking. 

In turn, reliable energy sparks human energy. That’s especially true among students, whose energy stems in large part from a dignified educational experience. Regardless of what children experience outside of school, the Monarch experience affirms the dignity in each of them – with clean clothes, hot meals and high-quality learning experiences.